Complicit: On Facing the Mirror Before Casting Stones

“Let me begin,” admits George J. Sefa Dei in “‘We Cannot Be Color-Blind': Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking,” “by making clear that I see myself as fully complicit in the discussion that I undertake in this chapter” (p. 25).

As we face large and powerful social forces such as poverty and racism—along with more narrow issues of education—I believe we all must address that first concern of who is complicit.

Let me begin with something that echoes in my mind almost continually, from Oscar Wilde: “But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.”

Consider taking that frame and using it many contexts: “But to recommend _____ to  _____ is both grotesque and insulting.”

Also consider who makes such recommendations. For the poor, the affluent and powerful—who do not live up to the same standards they impose—are the who.

Today—at this exact moment—we watch as a white authority structure recommends to a dominantly black community that which is “grotesque and insulting.” And then on a narrower scale, those with power and money recommend to educators that which is “grotesque and insulting.”

So whether we are confronting poverty and racism or education, we all must begin with who is complicit.

People in poverty and African Americans in the U.S. share one disturbing but distinct quality: disproportionately the impoverished and African Americans are excluded from the power structure.

Who, then, is complicit in the existence and tolerance of poverty and racism? It cannot be those without the power; therefore, it must be those with the power.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

White high school drop-outs and African Americans with some college have the same economic opportunities.

Whites and African Americans use recreational drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are targeted, charged, and incarcerated at much higher rates.

Those born wealthy and not attending college have greater economic power than those born in poverty and completing college.

To be white, to be wealthy—in the U.S. is to be complicit.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

While I think my field of education is of a magnitude smaller than issues of poverty and race, I must end there because the picture is hard to confront.

And because education is and always will be inextricable from the fight to end poverty and racism; as George J. Sefa Dei concludes, “Antiracism is about changing current processes of schooling and education delivery” (p. 39). We may say the same about poverty.

I have taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina and then been in teacher education for another 13 years. Teachers and teacher educators persistently complain about the bureaucracy of education; it is a relentless refrain among educators.

Recently, I received an email about how to anticipate what may be demanded of us when political regimes, once again, change; the email included: “No other profession has to deal with such crap.”

My response: “No other discipline would put up with that crap.”

Educators are complicit in the crap that is education reform. Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit.

All those scrambling to have a seat at the Common Core table, a table inextricable from the entire reform agenda—unions, administrators, teachers—all are complicit.

It is time to face the mirror, to examine who is complicit.








Democracy can mean a range of concepts, including freedoms, rights, elections, governments, processes, philosophies and a panoply of abstract and concrete notions that can be mediated by power, positionality, culture, time and space. Democracy can also be translated into brute force, hegemony, docility, compliance and conformity, as in wars will be decided on the basis of the needs of elites, or major decisions about spending finite resources will be the domain of the few over the masses, or people will be divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. because it is advantageous for maintaining exploitative political systems in place to do so. Often, these frameworks are developed and reified based on the notion that elections give the right to societies, or segment of societies, to install regimes, institutions and operating systems that are then supposedly legitimated and rendered infinitely just simply because formal power resides in the hands of those dominating forces.

The book is interested in advancing a critical analysis of the hegemonic paradigm described above, one that seeks higher levels of political literacy and consciousness, and one that makes the connection with education. What does education have to do with democracy? How does education shape, influence, impinge on, impact, negate, facilitate and/or change the context, contours and realities of democracy? How can we teach for and about democracy to alter and transform the essence of what democracy is, and, importantly, what it should be?

We are particularly interested in the notion of decency in relation to democracy, and underpinned by forms of meaningful, critically-engaged education. Is it enough to be kind, nice, generous and hopeful when we can also see signs of rampant, entrenched and debilitating racism, sexism, poverty, violence, injustice, war and other social inequalities? If democracy is intended to be a legitimating force for good, how does education inform democracy? What types of knowledge, experience, analysis and being are helpful to bring about newer, more meaningful and socially just forms of democracy?

Some of the themes to be explored might include:

  • peace, peace education and democracy
  • media, media literacy and democracy
  • pedagogy and education for democracy
  • curriculum and education for democracy
  • race, anti-racist education and democracy
  • poverty, class and education for democracy
  • environment and ecology within the context of democracy and education
  • the meaning of kindness in relation to democracy and education
  • what is decency within the context of democracy and education?

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please submit the following to by September 30, 2014:

1)    a 400-word summary of your proposal, including:

  1. title
  2. focus and research questions
  3. the connection to the subject of the book
  4. the theoretical and/or conceptualframework
  5. the major themes to beexplored
  6. other pertinent information

2)    8 keywords for the chapter

3)    a 100-word biography for each author


1)    Call for Proposals (August 25, 2014)

2)    Receive Proposals (September 30, 2014)

3)    Communicate with contributors regarding decision on proposals (October 15, 2014)

4)    First complete draft of 5,000 words due (January 15, 2015)

5)    Comments from editors regarding first draft to contributors (Februrary 15, 2015)

6)    Final complete draft due to editors (April 1, 2015)

7)    Review by editors, and follow-up with contributors (May 1, 2015)

8)    Liaison with publisher for final editing and proofing (May 15, 2015)

9)    Publication (Summer 2015)

For all other inquiries about this book, please contact Paul R. Carr at

Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction

It is the 1890s, and educators are concerned that students are not receiving the quality education they deserve—especially if those students plan to attend college. What became known as The Report of the Committee of Ten has now been replicated at varying intervals in the U.S. for 120 years: Competing interests declaring what students learn (and how students learn) as inadequate, and then setting out themselves to identify what students learn (and how students learn) to (i) save the children, (ii) save the country, (iii) save the economy.

This pattern of education reform is best captured, I think, in Herb Kliebard’s The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 because his guiding motif, “struggle,” reveals what is really going on when politicians, educators, researchers, and the public debate (often badly and in conflated ways) content, curriculum, standards, and then instruction.

Although content, curriculum, and standards as terms are different, in the real world, they tend to represent the same urge: Identify the what (knowledge) students should (or must) learn.

Before diving into the content and direct instruction debates, I want to address what is really going on. You don’t have to read George Orwell or Ray Bradbury to know this (although you should*), but the powerful in any society recognize that those who control knowledge (and language is knowledge) ultimately control everything. Thus, to codify what is known, what counts as knowledge, and what facts mean is to establish power.

Howard Zinn has popularized how perspective impacts so-called objective facts in his people’s history of the U.S.; many narratives of history told from the perspectives of losers, workers, and marginalized people become suddenly unrecognizable to those who were raised on traditional textbook renditions committed to celebrating the American Way.

Since the U.S. is mired in a misguided and often distorted debate about national curriculum, I want to return here to what is wrong with the content and direct instruction debates, historically and currently.

Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction

Ron Barnett in The Greenville News announces, “The high school of the future is here”:

George Jetson won’t be dropping his daughter Judy off in a flying bubble capsule, but the New Tech high school programs starting up this month in Greenville County promise to rocket the old educational model straight into the 21st century.

And what does that entail?: “The concept of teachers imparting knowledge on students who passively soak up information from their desks is on its way out at Carolina and J.L. Mann high schools.”

Two schools in Greenville (SC) county have adopted project-based learning, but Barnett offers this qualification: “Actually, project learning isn’t entirely new in the district.”

Actually, project learning isn’t even new to this century because, as Kliebard details, project-based learning grew out of John Dewey’s laboratory schools at the turn of the twentieth century and then the concept was bastardized and popularized throughout the first half of the 1900s, notably by William H. Kilpatrick.

And just for the historical record, project-based learning and an assortment of garbled practices mislabeled “progressive” [1] worked so swimmingly that all hell broke loose in the 1950s and 1960s: Rudolf Flesch fretted over Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) [2] and Hyman G. Rickover (1962) warned about how the Swiss were kicking the U.S. to the curb because of failing schools.

So let’s start with the central problem driving the never-ending content and direct instruction debates that sound about exactly the same today as they did over 100 years ago: The real issue with content and direct instruction is not if but how, when, and why.

At the core of how these debates both flourish and fail is the straw man, personified by attacks on John Dewey (progressivism) and Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy). Neither Dewey (progressivism) nor Freire (critical pedagogy) reject content or direct instruction, but both demanded that teachers and students re-imagine content (notably that content is not ideologically or politically neutral) and direct instruction.

Content is problematic as a term because many stakeholders in education use it differently. I want to clarify that content in this discussion has two distinctions: disciplinary knowledge (the facts of the disciplines) and disciplinary moves (how the disciplines view artifacts/facts, how the disciplines gather and interpret data, how the disciplines present their examinations of coming to know the world).

For progressive and critical educators, that formal schooling tends toward transferring static disciplinary knowledge to the exclusion of examining and fostering disciplinary moves (especially for marginalized groups of students) is the crux of the debate, compounded by the traditional stance that disciplinary knowledge can be objective. As critical scholars have argued, simply choosing what counts as knowledge is itself a political act.

As well, Dewey argued that since we could never really predict what static disciplinary knowledge students would need in the future, we should be sure to focus much of our energy on fostering disciplinary moves in students; this argument has been reduced to a somewhat silly and simplistic urge to teach “critical thinking,” which is in practice, as it turns out, anything except being critical.

Freire added to Dewey’s quest for instilling disciplinary moves by challenging the simplistic “banking” concept that views content (disciplinary knowledge) as static and non-political—but that challenge did not reject content, but called for ways in which to honor that content.

Both disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, then, are battlegrounds over power—influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality (among other contexts). As Lisa Delpit has argued, children of color and impoverished children are often fed reduced disciplinary knowledge and excluded from disciplinary moves; thus, our debates about content and direct instruction (as a subset of all instruction) must move toward insuring that all students have equal access to disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, and that all students receive the same quality of instruction (including direct instruction).

No one that I know is calling for no content or no direct instruction. The debate rests with when, how, and why—and those debates are important, and likely inexhaustible.

For me, content (as disciplinary knowledge) and direct instruction are secondary: disciplinary knowledge as a means to the greater ends of disciplinary moves; direct instruction coming after students have engaged in relatively naive and emerging authentic productions of artifacts of learning.

When I teach writing, for example, my students must engage with something worth writing about (disciplinary knowledge), and then after they present early drafts, I must offer direct instruction. My critical teaching of composition, then, is not without content and not without direct instruction.

Ultimately, then, the why is central: So that every student comes to discover for her/himself the disciplinary moves most valuable for reading and then re-reading the world, for writing and re-writing the world (Freire) in order for her/him to act on the world instead of having the world happen to her/him.

Finally, as a critical educator, I practice these beliefs each day with deep and diligent skepticism because, in the end, I could be wrong. And that is what disciplinary moves are all about—the purposeful engaging with the world to better understand it for the self and the larger community.

* Wink, wink, nod, nod …

[1] For a genuinely progressive take-down of the folly found in misguided uses of the project method, please read: 

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. Stable URL:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

[2] And by 2011, ta-da!, “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read.” [HINT: It's those damn progressives.]

VAM Remedy Part of Inequity Disease

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

In Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), Edward H. Haertel draws an important conclusion about value-added methods of evaluating teachers built on standardized tests: “Tests aligned to grade-level standards cannot fully register the academic progress of students far above grade level or far below grade level,” and thus create a “bias against those teachers working with the lowest performing or the highest performing classes,” adding:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (pp. 8, 24)

All of these consequences of high-stakes testing and VAM, then, are likely to impact negatively high-poverty and minority students, who disproportionately score low on such tests.

Matthew Di Carlo’s new examination of VAM in DC reinforces Haertel’s concern:

Specifically, you’ll notice that almost 30 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive the highest rating (“highly effective”), compared with just 7-10 percent in the other categories. In addition, just over seven percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive one of the two lowest ratings (“minimally effective” or “ineffective,” both of which may result in dismissal), versus 18-21 percent in the medium- and high-poverty schools.

So, the relationship between school poverty and IMPACT ratings may not be linear, as the distributions for medium- and high-poverty schools are quite similar. Nevertheless, it seems very clear that IMPACT results are generally better among teachers in schools serving lower proportions of poor students (i.e., students eligible for subsidized lunch), and that the discrepancies are quite large.

High-poverty schools already share some disturbing characteristics, including that they often reflect and perpetuate the inequities found in the homes and communities of the children they serve (see HERE and HERE). But high-poverty schools also struggle to attract and retain experienced and certified/qualified teachers.

And while virtually no one advocates for using VAM in high-stakes policies, mounting evidence shows that VAM is likely to further deter teachers from the schools and students most needing high-quality dedicated teachers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and then Common Core have been sold to the public as policy intended to close the so-called achievement gap (a misnomer for the equity gap; see HERE and HERE)—just as advocates of VAM have attributed school failure to “bad” teachers and VAM as a way to rid schools of those “bad” teachers, again to address the achievement gap.

However, the evidence refutes the rhetoric because accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, Common Core, and VAM have not and will not address equity, but are likely to increase the exact problems advocates claim they will solve (see Mathis, 2012Hout & Elliot, 2011Haertel, 2013; Di Carlo, 2014).

If left unchecked, VAM as a education reform remedy will prove to be yet another part of the inequity disease.

Preventing Arson Instead of Putting Out Fires

What do the allegory of the river, the science fiction film In Time, and a mainstream examination of living in poverty by an economist and a psychologist reveal for those of us seeking the next phase in our resistance of the education reform agenda in the U.S.?

We need to pull back from a thousand individual examples of how political, media, and public claims about education are failing children and public education. In other words, we need to increase our calls for ending arson and reduce our efforts to put out fires.

The allegory of the river emphasizes the need to address causes for our problems, instead of only tackling over and over the consequences:

The woman replied, “Someone or something is causing these children to fall into the river.  We could be here for years pulling broken bodies from the water.  I am going to walk upstream until I find out what is causing these children to fall in and see if I can do something to stop it!”

Babies tossed in the river, arsons setting fires—or as Oscar Wilde confronted, “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

So step one in the next phase is shifting our energy to causes.

Step two includes a recognition that spending a disproportionate amount of our time and energy putting out the fires the education reformers are setting insures the reformers win—just as the majority of people are shackled to their frantic lives artificially by ruling forces in the film In Time.

Teachers and students are now experiencing paralyzing frantic lives—conditions (remedies) labeled “reform” that in fact “deform” (part of the disease).

Focus on causes, reduce our frantic responses, and then the third step, revealed in Scarcity: Committing ourselves to disciplinary evidence addressing large-scale social forces (instead of accusatory stares focused on individuals).

Let’s consider, then, how to move forward, shifting our messages away from putting out fires and toward calling out grand scale failures because politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z is not a unique or especially flawed example on his or her own.

Politicians, celebrities and journalists are failing the public discourse often, and we cannot express enough that those failures are grounded primarily in their lack of experience and expertise in teaching and education. So we certainly need to continue reminding everyone of those facts: I don’t know politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z, and I have no way genuinely to examine any of their intentions or essential nature as people (although I have credible suspicions, I think), but I do know they have little to no credibility, and that their claims and policies are misguided.

Today, for example, reveals both our need to continue the resistance (although with a new resolve) and how dangerous our duty remains:

  • The New York Times reports on very disturbing details about a sports-celebrity’s charter school. The lesson here is not specifically the celebrity-athlete or the political figures who allowed the charter to form, but the larger failure: Political, media, and public commitments that ignore expertise and evidence represented by the unwarranted charter school movement.
  • NPR reports on a journalist’s book about teaching, teachers, and teacher effectiveness. The media coverage of that book has also promoted Tom Loveless to refute many of the claims made by the journalist. None of this is an isolated or unique problem because we daily are bombarded by the media and journalists examining education as if educators and researchers have never considered their own field. The result is the public is misguided once again. NPR and the NYT represent journalists covering journalists writing about the disciplines as if the experts in the disciplines simply do not exist; and therein lies the problem.
  • At The Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet, we learn that grading policies at Princeton are mis-serving students. Education Week adds that at-risk students are also mis-served. These seemingly separate reform fires can be traced to the same arsonist: Our urge to label students and our blind allegiance to grading.

I could go on, and tomorrow will be the same, I suspect: Fires, fires, everywhere fires—ones set by the exact reformers who claim to be here to help us (possibly suggesting another key work of science fiction literature).

We cannot ignore the fires, of course, but we must not allow them to keep us mostly focused on the frantic task of fighting those fires to the exclusion of unmasking the arsons, an unmasking designed to prevent those fires.

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida [1]

What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests and charter schools have in common?

First, they have a great deal of public and political support.

But, second, the research base on these policies has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.

South Carolina is a typical example of how education policy not grounded in evidence continues to fail students. For example, charter schools advocacy remains robust but deeply misleading:

We know that choice in education changes lives. We must work together to develop a culture in South Carolina that values education — from our families to funding at the State House. All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, and excellent public charter schools are part of the solution in transforming South Carolina’s future.

This sort of incomplete advocacy [2] is commonplace despite charter schools in SC reinforcing discrediting patterns found across the U.S.:

Charter schools—like grade retention—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for the essential problems facing public education.

Nonetheless, SC also models reform on Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies discredited when reviewed. However, as John Thompson details:

Oklahoma’s Republican Legislature overrode the veto of Republican Governor Mary Fallin, and overwhelmingly rejected another cornerstone of Jeb Bush’s corporate reform agenda. The overall vote was 124 to 21….

Oklahoma’s victory over the test and punish approach to 3rd grade reading is a win-win team effort of national importance. The override was due to an unexpected, grassroots uprising started by parents, joined by superintendents and teachers, organized on social media, and assisted by anti- corporate reform educators and our opposite, Stand for Children, as well as Tea Party supporters, and social service providers who are increasingly coming to the rescue of the state’s grossly underfunded schools.

The rise of grade-retention policy and  charter schools shares the flawed combination of popularity and a solid research base discrediting those policies. Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo pose some key points about the need to reject grade-retention policy, points that should guide needed movements against charter schools and other misguided policy:

  • Before policy is implemented, the problem needs to be clearly defined with the research base on the appropriate policies for that problem identified by experts in the field (not political leaders or policy advocates). If, for example, reading achievement is an identified problem in a state, what do we know about grade retention as a policy solution? According to Stipek and Lombardo:

A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation. According to a 2005 review of decades of studies by Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie: “Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family background, etc.”

  • Once we establish the problem and the evidence base on the reform, what concept should guide adopting new policy? Again, about retention, Stipek and Lombardo explain: “Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.” In other words, policies that reinforce or replicate the identified problems must be ended, and then something different needs to be implemented.

If reading achievement is a problem, grade retention guarantees to cause more harm than good.

If public school segregation and student achievement are problems, charter schools actually fuel segregation and offer about the same student achievement (and even worse) as public schools.

Currently, the public and political leaders rail against failing schools and failing students, but the truth is that public and political support for misguided policy is failing students.

SC needs to choose the sorts of public school policies that will insure that no child and no parent needs to choose the school best for any child. In SC and across the U.S., we need to choose Oklahoma, not Florida.

[1] Op-Ed originally published at The Greenville News, and included here to add hyperlinks for support.

[2] See Review of The Productivity of Public Charter Schools

“Education as Great Equalizer” Deforming Myth, Not Reality

In the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons,” viewers watch yet another clash between the essentially soulless main characters as they interact with the very white and privileged “real world” surrounding them in the sitcom. The crux of this episode revolves around one couple having a baby, and then what occurs when reality clashes with civility:

Jerry: Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?

Elaine: Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like the Pekinese.

Jerry: Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. (They sit) And, you know, the thing is, they’re never gonna know, no one’s ever gonna tell them. (See transcript here.)

Setting aside what this scene (again) reveals about Jerry and Elaine, an important message we can draw from this tension is that most people genuinely do not want to face the harsh truth, especially when that harsh truth contradicts their beliefs.

As I have examined before, the U.S. is overwhelmingly a belief culture, committed to our cultural myths even and especially when those myths have no basis in evidence.

When I have approached the overwhelming evidence that poverty is destiny, I receive angry challenges from people all along the spectrum of ideologies Right and Left, but I also have people who align themselves with me send pleas that I stop such nonsense: Rejecting hard truths has no ideological boundary.

However, in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny, and those who shudder at that reality are confusing verbs: Yes, poverty should not be destiny, but false claims will never allow us to achieve that ideal.

So this leads me to a parallel harsh truth: Education is not the great equalizer (and, again, education should be the great equalizer, but making that claim when it isn’t a reality is inexcusable.)

As I have highlighted numerous times, Matt Bruenig, using “data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project about social mobility (I,II),” presents a stark reality and draws a disturbing conclusion:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility. Take a look at this super-complicated chart, which I will describe below….

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

In the U.S., powerful mythologies drive a faith in social mobility (connected to working hard, being well educated, and achievement coming to those who merit that success), but also foster counter-narratives that are essentially ugly and unwarranted: those who are poor or fail are lazy, underserving (read Scarcity for a powerful and evidence-based look at how poverty overwhelms people instead of poverty results from flawed individuals).

The evidence is overwhelming and growing, however, that education is not the great equalizer and that poverty/affluence remain essentially destiny, as reported by Juana Summers at NPR:

Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.

“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.

But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.

In The Long Shadow, Alexander, Entwistle, and Olson “followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into,” Rosen explains, discovering:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men—because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

The realities of class and race in the U.S. are far removed from simplistic slogans.

In the U.S., African Americans with some college have the same economic power as white high school drop-outs.

And the relationship between education and opportunity proves to be again and again, misleading. The SAT remains a powerful gatekeeper for college, despite SAT scores being less effective than GPA (actual merit) for determining who attends college.

More disturbing, however, is that access to education provides cover for the what truly matters in the U.S.: as The Long Shadow and Bruenig document, the coincidences of birth—money and family (and not merit).

While I maintain that hollow slogans (“education is the great equalizer”) prove to be “myths that deform,” [1] and thus work against our ideals, I am not calling for some sort of callous fatalism.

The first step toward “poverty is not destiny” and “education is the great equalizer” is naming the current failures in order to establish actions and policies that would shift the existing, and ugly, realities: poverty and affluence are destiny and wealth/family trump merit (such as education)—all of which are magnified by lingering racism.

Next, we must confront our assumptions about who is wealthy and who is impoverished, coupled with ending cultural demands that the impoverished work twice as hard and that the disadvantaged conform to higher moral and ethical standards. As Oscar Wilde eloquently argued:

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this….[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease….

And in this recognition, Wilde rejects those “remedies”:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor….

It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair….

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

It is, then, ours to reject both “exaggerated altruism” and base fatalism; instead, we must commit to the following:

  • Name and recognize inequity without stooping to demonizing people. In our current commitments to meritocracy myths, we demonize the poor; but it does no one any good to simply shift who we demonize. Our enemy is inequity, and solutions to inequity rest in changing powerful social dynamics and not with “fixing” flawed (or promoting idealized and false portraits of “successful”) individuals.
  • Stop promoting false myths to children because as they grow up, they come to see the myth as a lie, and thus, the entire promise of the American Dream is tarnished.
  • Commit to social and education policy grounded in equity, and not in competition or market forces.

We need a new way to speak to our children. And we must begin here: “We have not yet created the country we want, and we must admit life continues to be too often unfair. But things can be better, and we are here to help because you can live in a world more fair than the one we have given you.”

Success in the U.S. is not the result of “grit,” not the consequence of some people being more determined (“better”) than others. Many people worker harder than others, but remain impoverished, have less access to opportunities. None of this should be true, but it is.

Ultimately, however, we must put our money and actions where our words take us. Otherwise, as John Gardner warned, equity, fairness, and justice become “cheap streamers in the rain.”

[1] “[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

A Call for the Next Phase in the Resistance

Teachers at every level of schooling have struggled against two powerful social claims: (i) education has always been labeled a failure by political leaders and the media (notably in the context of international comparisons and despite such claims being at least misleading if not completely false) and (ii) that K-12 teachers must not be political while university professors should also focus on their scholarship and not drift into public intellectual work.

The consequences of these dynamics include an essentially passive teacher workforce and an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucracy driving how schools (K-12 and universities) are run, that dysfunction primarily grounded in that non-educators make most of the structural educational decisions and thus the education system is done to (and not by) the professionals themselves.

Over the past thirty years, this process has become more clearly codified and federalized, the seeds of which were planted in the early 1980s commitment to the accountability paradigm based on standards and high-stakes testing, and then expanded through NCLB in 2001 as well as copy-cat initiatives under the Obama administration.

Most of those accountability years, I would classify as Phase 1, a period characterized by a political monopoly on both public discourse and policy addressing primarily public K-12 education.

We are now in Phase 2, a time in which (in many ways aided by the rise in social media—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—and the alternative press—AlterNet and Truthout) teachers, professors, and educational scholars have begun to create a resistance to the political, media, and public commitments to recycling false charges of educational failure in order to continue the same failed approaches to education reform again and again.

In Phase 1, educators were subjected to the role of the child; we were asked to be seen but not heard.

In Phase 2, adolescence kicked in, and we quite frankly began to experiment with our rebellious selves. In many instances, we have been pitching a fit—a completely warranted tantrum, I believe, but a tantrum nonetheless.

And now that there are some cracks in the education reform machine, now that we have committed ourselves to being that resistance, the voice and action of those who are the professionals, I am making a call for Phase 3, something like moving into our young adulthood as a resistance.

Having taught high school for 18 years and having raised a daughter into her mid-20s (so far), I am one who both loves and recognizes the power and danger of the passion driving adolescents. I am often jealous that adolescents can care so deeply and so loudly, and often with the ability to hold their pitch high endlessly.

The power of adolescent passion is that it breeds passion and it draws attention. The danger of adolescent passion is that it must result in something substantial or all that exponential passion and attention wither.

Now that we as the resistance have fostered passion beyond the choir and now that we have begun to garner the attention of a few politicians, a few journalists, and many parents as well as interested members of the public, I sense a need to make a shift in strategies that include the following:

  • While I remain committed to my many arguments defending tone, the resistance now must lead our claims with substance and take care not to create opportunities for our central messages to be overshadowed by either credible or unwarranted complaints about tone. I am reminded of the evolution of Michael Stipe’s lyrics for the alternative rock group R.E.M.; Stipe admitted during what can now be called the mid-period of the band that he had moved on from being always ironic and sarcastic about topics such as love (note the early “The One I Love”) in order to consider them seriously (note “At My Most Beautiful”). I am not saying we should no longer be angry (we should) or sarcastic and biting, but I believe we have come to a time in which our primary driving tone must be above the possibility of having our central mission undermined.
  • A related shift must be avoiding the trap of maintaining too much energy on putting out fires set by education reformers, notably in that we as the resistance are embroiled in refuting the person of the moment (from Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan to the current Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg). This is a very difficult bind for the resistance because education reform is rich not only in funding but also in celebrities of the moment. And my argument here is not that we do not refute edu-reformers without credibility, but that we maintain as we discredit a focus on the larger evidence and claims instead of suggesting that this person or that person is the problem. For example, I have offered that the Common Core debate is not about the specific standards, but about the failure of the accountability paradigm itself. With Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Brown, and others, our concern is that these people lack experience and expertise in our field, and thus, their claims and policies are the problems—not them as people. If we must write about Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on teacher tenure, we need to focus on what tenure is and how her characterization is misinformed—but not on that Goldberg said it (she isn’t alone, by the way, and by highlighting her, we suggest she has more credibility than dozens of other people saying the same misinformation).
  • As I have noted before (in the context of the John Oliver Rule), we must use the incredible platform that Diane Ravitch has built for teachers, professors, and scholars in order to build a movement of many faces, many voices, and many experts. The mainstream media have reduced the resistance to Ravitch in much the same way that the media have reduced climate change to Bill Nye. The resistance is and must be promoted as a rich and varied body of professionals, both unified and driven by the tensions of our field. Race, gender, sexuality, ideology—the rainbow of our resistance must be prominent and we cannot allow it to be reduced, oversimplified, or marginalized.

In short, as I have argued about the Common Core debate, the resistance has reached a point when we must forefront rational and evidence-based alternatives to a crumbling education reform disaster.

We must be the adults in the room, the calm in the storm. It won’t be easy, but it is time for the resistance to grow up and take our next step.

Rational and Evidence-Based Responses to Standards Advocates and Critics

Because the education agendas and discourse by Democrats and Republicans are essentially indistinguishable, as I have argued before, educators have no political party.

Educators are similarly trapped, however, in the Common Core debate between standards advocates and standards critics, who are also indistinguishable for two prominent reasons: the failure to start the consideration of standards on either a rational or an evidence-based foundation.

Political leaders, the mainstream, media, and education reform advocates with the highest profiles represent the most distinct and influential evidence of this dynamic. Typically, the better considerations of standards broadly and Common Core narrowly are left to bloggers—for example, Rachel Levy’s The Common Condescension and Peter Greene’s Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars.

While Levy and Greene offer critiques with much greater credibility than the Common Core commentaries they refute, the wider public is likely to be left with having seen only the original, and flawed, claims. We edu-bloggers who have both experience and expertise in education are more or less left to preach to the choir.

But since the most recent trend concerning Common Core is for advocates and critics to discuss and analyze the Common Core debate itself—again, evidence that Common Core advocates have in fact won—I want to offer one more time the two foundational reasons that pursuing standards is a failed structure for education reform, two reasons that standards/Common Core advocates have been successful at removing from the table entirely.

Let’s start with basic logic problems for basing education reform on standards (especially the perpetual pursuit of new and better standards).

In order for new standards to be a major or significant solution to education problems, we would need to establish that current standards (or a lack of standards) are the source of those problems. This may surprise some, but I have never seen a single careful examination of whether or not standards are the problem (see below for the evidence on what we do know about standards as a part of the reform agenda); thus, standards are unlikely to be the solution.

A practical logic problem also exists for those advocating or criticizing standards: If I am teaching, my job is to identify where any student is in her/his learning and then to take that student farther, both in terms of direct teaching and by motivating that student to learn. That fact of real-world teaching renders detailed standards irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what a standard deems any student should know and when since the reality of that student supersedes those mandates.

Calculating something such as 8th-grade reading level (a spurious venture at best) and then crafting standards to hold all teachers of 8th-graders and all 8th-graders to that goal remain mostly theory, achievable in the abstract maybe, but, again, prove pointless in the real world where any classroom of 8th-graders has reading experiences and abilities all along a wide spectrum that each teacher must work with and from.

My 8th-grader reading above grade level and my 8th-grader reading below grade level both deserve my teaching them, and not that I try to accomplish the state-mandated standards. (And to suggest that I need someone to mandate my standards lest I know not what to teach is a truly offensive claim for a professional.)

A rational and ethical approach to teaching begins with where students are, not with standard calls for where every student should be.

However, if the rational approaches to considering standards-based reform aren’t enough (and they should be enough to show that the debate itself is fruitless, that we should be pursuing something else), let’s now turn to what we know about standards-based reform.

Modern education in U.S. has existed from and through a series of broad eras: From the 1890s and into mid-twentieth century (the foundational years of establishing standards as well as a factory, and thus standard, approach to public schooling), the volatile 1950s and 1960s with Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation establishing racial equity, and then the current accountability era begun in the 1980s, reinforced in 2001 with NCLB and later expanded under President Obama (again, the Bush and Obama agendas are indistinguishable from each other).

To be blunt, in fact, U.S. public education has never been absent arguments about what should be taught (both standards and curriculum) and how that should be taught, but the past thirty years have provided a solid research base on how accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing impacts education reform.

And that brings us to the second problem with both advocates and critics of Common Core: They never address what we know about standards-based education reform.

A significant research base along a wide range of political ideologies has been essentially ignored, primarily because Common Core advocates have successfully established a debate about Common Core itself and thus never allowed the necessary initial debate to occur: Are standards the problem, and thus, are better standards the solution?

The bad news for both standards critics and advocates is (i) the presence or quality of standards have no correlation with student achievement, (ii) standards-based reform fails to address equity, and (iii) standards-based reform linked to high-stakes accountability has asked less of students and teachers (Hout & Elliot, 2011French, Guisbond, & Jehlen, 2013; Loveless, 2012; Mathis, 2012; Whitehurst, 2009; Kohn, 2010de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Horn, 2013).

Educators and those who value universal public education are left with two difficult positions. One is that we have no political party, and the other is that we find ourselves outside the Common Core debate—demanding in both instances that we try something else, notably that we start by first identifying the causes of our problems so that our solutions have a chance of succeeding.

We re left with being rational, with calling upon evidence in the wider public debates, and to be honest, those are significant uphill battles in the U.S. where the irrational and unmerited thrive.

Common Core will not save our schools and our children, and neither will Common Core destroy our schools and our children—except that continuing either the pursuit of new standards or debating standards endlessly is a distraction guaranteeing we will never get to the work needed.

SC’s Zais Mistake

Public education has been under assault and misrepresented by political leaders, the media, and the public since (at least) the mid-1800’s.

Over the past couple of years, I have documented numerous times the key role mainstream media have played in the failure of accountability-based education reform driven by (ever-new) standards and (ever-new) high-stakes tests. So I am putting aside my skepticism (on the edge of cynicism) about the possibilities afforded by a critical free press, and wondering here if Cindi Scoppe’s (The State, Columbia, SC) Boy, did I ever misjudge this candidate is a sign of a turning point, as she admits:

It seems nearly pointless to kick Education Superintendent Mick Zais on his way out the door, particularly since it seems unlikely that he could actually succeed in his plan to sabotage our state’s education standards — any changes have to be approved by two state boards whose chairmen reject his interpretation of the law.

But the fact is that his parting mission to purge the state education standards of any vestiges of Common Core will waste yet more money and time, and so something needs to be said.

Which is this: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I endorsed Mick Zais in the 2010 general election. I was clearly wrong.

Scoppe offers a rare public apology from the media, but many have pointed out that political educational leadership across the U.S. tends to be inept because we rarely demand expertise and experience in education from those elected and appointed to educational positions (note Arne Duncan as the poster boy for such ineptitude, an appointee-by-connections and not expertise and experience).

Scoppe’s initial endorsement simply failed to start with requiring that a candidate for superintendent of education should have qualifications related to public education (and no one in the media ever asked Zais, a former general, if he would support a military leader with no experience in the military).

This apology must be accepted and supported; however, it also should serve as a foundation upon which we move forward—notably in that Scoppe misrepresents the key and extremely complicated issue at the center of the Zais Mistake, the Common Core.

SC adopted Common Core (a mistake) against the (misguided) wishes of Zais, and then after the Tea Party/libertarian public resistance to Common Core emerged across SC, the state dumped Common Core, which has provided Zais with a parting shot during his lame-duck status.

The Zais Mistake parallels the Common Core mistake in one key way: Both are mistakes of a fundamental nature and not simply about the specific person or set of standards. Electing Zais is no different than appointing Duncan since neither is credible in the field of public education. Adopting Common Core is not a mistake of standards type or quality but a continuation of committing to standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability that have never worked and never will because the essential problems of education in SC have nothing to do with standards, high-stakes testing, or accountability.

As I have noted numerous times, political leadership ignores the evidence on standards, but we must also admit that the media ignore the evidence as well:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, and Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

It was slow and painful in being unmasked, but the Zais Mistake is powerful evidence of the folly inherent in partisan politics mixed with a foundational public good, the public school system.

But that is only Step 1 because the Common Core debate is even more evidence of the folly inherent in the standards Marry-Go-Round that distorts the important work that needs to be done about the crippling inequity found in SC and its public schools. SC has a poverty and inequity problem about which no set of standards can address. Standards may somehow create equality, but the evidence clearly shows that standards-based reform cannot and will not address equity.

We need mainstream media to take Step 2 now and call out the entire accountability era for the mistake it is so that we can start an alternative path to education reform based on the pursuit of social and educational equity. And as well end the long era of allowing educational elected positions to be stepping stones for political careers and bloated egos.

The Zais Mistake: A Reader

Test-Based Teacher Evaluation Earns F, Again

Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise

The Politics of Misinformation in Education Reform

VAMboozled by Empty-Suit Leadership in SC

Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities

The Bully Politics of Education Reform

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

The Assault on Public Education in SC Continues: More Innovation!

The Relentless Bully Politics Continues in SC

Don’t Delay Retention Policy, Reject Retention

Argue with Some of the Logic?: The Expertise Gap

The Disturbing State of Education: SC to Follow Template from LA and TN

Janus: God of Politics?

The Teaching Profession?: Of License, Compulsion, and Autonomy

The Tragedy of Education Transformation: Leadership without Expertise

In SC (and across US), don’t jump from NCLB to more of the same

NCLB: Strange Bedfellows Sprung from Opting Out