Devaluing Teachers in the Age of Value-Added

We teach the children of the middle class, the wealthy and the poor,” explains Anthony Cody, continuing:

We teach the damaged and disabled, the whole and the gifted. We teach the immigrants and the dispossessed natives, the transients and even the incarcerated.

In years past we formed unions and professional organizations to get fair pay, so women would get the same pay as men. We got due process so we could not be fired at an administrator’s whim. We got pensions so we could retire after many years of service.

But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more. We cost too much. We expect our hard-won expertise to be recognized with respect and autonomy. We talk back at staff meetings, and object when we are told we must follow mindless scripts, and prepare for tests that have little value to our students.

During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public schools and the students they serve felt the weight of standards- and test-based accountability—a bureaucratic process that has wasted huge amounts of tax-payers’ money and incalculable time and energy assigning labels, rankings, and blame. The Reagan-era launching of accountability has lulled the U.S. into a sort of complacency that rests on maintaining a gaze on schools, students, and test data so that no one must look at the true source of educational failure: poverty and social inequity, including the lingering corrosive influences of racism, classism, and sexism.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras—resting on intensified commitments to accountability such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)—have continued that misguided gaze and battering, but during the past decade-plus, teachers have been added to the agenda.

As Cody notes above, however, simultaneously political leaders, the media, and the public claim that teachers are the most valuable part of any student’s learning (a factually untrue claim), but that high-poverty and minority students can be taught by those without any degree or experience in education (Teach for America) and that career teachers no longer deserve their profession—no tenure, no professional wages, no autonomy, no voice in what or how they teach.

And while the media and political leaders maintain these contradictory narratives and support these contradictory policies, value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating and compensating U.S. public teachers are being adopted, again simultaneously, as the research base repeatedly reveals that VAM is yet another flawed use of high-stake accountability and testing.

When Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff released (and re-released) reports claiming that teacher quality equates to significant earning power for students, the media and political leaders tripped over themselves to cite (and cite) those reports.

What do we know about the Chetty, et al., assertions?

From 2012:

[T]hose using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings. (Di Carlo)

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.) (Baker)

And now, a thorough review concludes:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

Similar to the findings in Edward H. Haertel’s analysis of VAM, Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), the American Statistical Association has issued ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment, emphasizing:

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling. Combining VAMs across multiple years decreases the standard error of VAM scores. Multiple years of data, however, do not help problems caused when a model systematically undervalues teachers who work in specific contexts or with specific types of students, since that systematic undervaluation would be present in every year of data.

Among DiCarlo, Baker, Haertel and the ASA, several key patterns emerge regarding VAM: (1) VAM remains an experimental statistical model, (2) VAM is unstable and significantly impacted by factors beyond a teacher’s control and beyond the scope of that statistical model to control, and (3) implementing VAM in high-stakes policies exaggerates the flaws of VAM.

The rhetoric about valuing teachers rings hollow more and more as teaching continues to be dismantled and teachers continue to be devalued by misguided commitments to VAM and other efforts to reduce teaching to a service industry.

VAM as reform policy, like NCLB, is sham-science being used to serve a corporate need for cheap and interchangeable labor. VAM, ironically, proves that evidence does not matter in education policy.

Like all workers in the U.S., we simply do not value teachers.

Political leaders, the media, and the public call for more tests for schools, teachers, and students, but they continue to fail themselves to acknowledge the mounting evidence against test-based accountability.

And thus, we don’t need numbers to prove what Cody states directly: “But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more.”

Skepticism or Cynicism for Obama Education Agenda?

One response to my Relaxing zero tolerance in schools could be Obama’s boldest civil rights reform is worth highlighting: Readers adamant that the Obama education agenda is beyond such hope.

Let me note here that I have long since slipped past healthy skepticism and resigned myself to unhealthy cynicism with respect to either major political party and their leaders, including Obama.

I have tried before to confront the possibilities and the failures associated with Obama and Secretary Duncan, a set of policies and a series of rhetorical flurries that leave me even more depressed than those dark years under George W. Bush and his Secretaries, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings:

Paul R. Carr and Brad Porfilio are now preparing a revised edition of The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism?—in which I have had and will have chapters.

I must note that my revised chapter is none too rosy; in fact, it is a solid statement of cynicism that has left skepticism in the dust. The revised chapter ends:

This call for change is not being heard, blocked by the din of the crisis discourse and utopian expectations that deform our children, our schools, and our society. The great failure being masked is that bureaucratic calls for school reform are perpetuating the labeling and marginalizing of teachers and students whose conditions in mechanistic schools parallel the inequities that the political elite are willingly ignoring both in their discourse and in their policies.

So when I confront the late but important recognition by the Obama administration that current education policies and practices are indeed racist, classist, and sexist, I believe it is on us to redouble our efforts, remind everyone we have been saying that for many years.

We actually don’t need Obama’s administration to tell us these things. But unless we make an effort to shift the gaze and the discourse in the right direction, on those extremely rare moments when they do, we are losing a moment.

I am not calling for our collective patting of the backs among the Obama administration. I would say the best tactic is to say, “Shame on you all for just noticing, but let’s get to work and stop all that other nonsense that is also doing harm!”

The Obama administration has hidden behind “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time” while promoting the worst possible education policies and maintaining an inexcusable allegiance to Secretary Duncan.

Let’s not forget that, and let’s not forget the “hope and change” rhetoric that lured many of us to have hope for change.

The recent shift driven by the Office of Civil Rights reports, however, is our opportunity to turn the “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” mantras on their heads, raising our voices and our eyes toward those in charge who are failing us and the children in our schools.

If there is hope for that change, it is in our grasp to make it happen.

College Athletes’ Academic Cheating a Harbinger of a Failed System

Margaret Atwood’s narrator, June/Offred, characterizes her situation in the dystopian speculative world of The Handmaid’s Tale:

Apart from the details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. This is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances….

In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to….

In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that. (pp. 8, 105, 111)

In her reduced circumstances as a handmaid—her entire existence focusing on becoming pregnant by a Commander to whom she is assigned, potentially a series of three before she is cast aside as infertile, thus useless—June/Offred’s fantasies about her Commander turn murderous:

I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart, the toilet in my own bathroom, on a bath night, quickly and quietly, so Cora outside on the chair would not hear me. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study, the next time, because after a request like that there’s always a next time, whether you say yes or no. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hand. (pp. 139-140)

The novel reveals no evidence that June in her life in “former times” has been anything other than a relatively typical young woman with a family and a normal life. Atwood asks readers to consider her reduced circumstances (ones she does not create, ones she has no power to change alone) and how they shape the individuals in this disturbing Brave New World.

Atwood’s “reduced circumstances” are a narrative and fictional examination through a novelist’s perspective—a thought experiment replicated in the graphic novels and TV series The Walking Dead, as the comic book creator Robert Kirkman explains: “I want to explore how people deal with the extreme situations and how these events change [emphasis in original] them. I’m in this for the long haul.”

Research on human behavior has revealed, as well, that the same human behaves differently as the situations around change, what Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much define as “scarcity” and “slack.” The “reduced circumstances” of The Handmaid’s Tale, then, is a state of “scarcity,” and poverty is one of the most common types of scarcity:

One cannot take a vacation from poverty [emphasis added]. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Still, one prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty.

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction [emphasis added]: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure.(pp. 148, 155)

Given that we hold highly negative stereotypes about the poor, essentially defined by a failure (they are poor!), it is natural to attribute personal failure to them….Accidents of birth—such as what continent you are born on—have a large effect on your chance of being poor….The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed. (pp. 154, 155, 161)

We are faced with a perplexing problem that sets up a clash between a powerful cultural ideal (the rugged individual and the allure of individual accountability) against a compelling research base that, as Mullainathan and Shafir offer, suggests individual behavior is at least as likely to represent systemic conditions, and not individual qualities (either those that are fixed or those can be learned, such as “grit”).

Although they may seem unrelated narrowly, two academic cheating phenomena are ideal examples of this perplexing problem—attempting to tease out individual culpability from systemic forces.

One consequence of the high-stakes era of accountability in public education has been the seemingly endless accounts of cheating on high-stakes testing; the most notorious being the DC eraser-gate under the reign of Michelle Rhee but also scandals such as the one in Georgia.

Academic cheating by college athletes has also been exposed recently, notably associated with the University of North Carolina. But college athletes cheating to remain eligible is not anything new; for example, Florida State University has received similar criticism for ignoring or covering up the academic deficiencies of athletes in the past.

It is at this point—the academic cheating and dodging of college athletes—that I want to focus on the concept of “reduced circumstances” and “scarcity” in order to consider where the source of these outcomes lie.

A few additional points inform this consideration.

First, college athletes at Northwestern University are seeking to form a union so that they can gain some degree of autonomy over their circumstances as college athletes—circumstances dictated by the NCAA. This move by athletes themselves appears to match a call by Andre Perry, his being specifically about graduation rates:

Black athletes have no choice but to play a major role in their own success. They must take full advantage of the scholarships afforded to them in spite of the climate. But some athletes have to pay a political price to force institutions to cater to black males’ academic talents. Graduation is a team effort, but black athletes must flex their political muscle to pave a way from the stadiums in January to the graduation stages in May.

Perry’s argument is one that focuses on individual agency and the athletes’ ability to rise above “the climate.”

However, David Zirin, discussing a Meet the Press examination of the NCAA and the circumstances of college athletes, seeks a systemic focus:

Yet far more glaring than the content of the discussion was what the discussion was missing. This is not surprising given the parties sitting around the table, but there was zero discussion about how institutionalized racism animates the amassed wealth of the NCAA, the top college coaches and the power conferences. It does not take Cornel West to point out that the revenue producing sports of basketball and football are overwhelmingly populated by African-American athletes. The population of the United States that is most desperate for an escape out of poverty is the population that has gotten the rawest possible deal from an NCAA, which is actively benefiting from this state of affairs….

The issue of the NCAA is a racial justice issue.

The public and the media, I believe, have already sided with blaming the athletes as well as blaming a failure of leadership and accountability among coaches and university administration, including presidents.

For example, the media has rushed to identify a student paper (a bare paragraph) as an example of the cheating at UNC, a claim now refuted by the whistleblower in the scandal, Mary Willingham. That rush and misrepresentation highlight, however, where the accusatory gaze is likely to remain—on the student athlete as culpable, on the coaches, professors, and universities.

As Zirin asks, what will be missing?

Few will consider that the academic scandal among student athletes at UNC—like the cheating scandals on high-stakes tests in public schools—is powerful evidence of a flawed system, one that places young people in “reduced circumstances” and then their behavior is changed.

As I have argued before [*see the entire post included below] (from a position of my own experiences as a teacher and scholastic coach and as someone who advocates for student athletes), school-based athletics in the U.S. corrupts both sport and academics. The entire scholastic sports dynamic is the essential problem.

There simply is no natural relationship between athletics and academics, and by creating a context in which young people are coerced into academics by linking their participation in athletics to their classroom achievement, we are devaluing both athletics and academics.

So I see a solution to the tension between Perry’s call for athlete agency and Zirin’s call for confronting systemic racism: We must address the conditions first so that we can clearly see to what extent individuals can and should be held accountable.

It seems simple enough, but if student athletes were not required to achieve certain academic outcomes (attendance, grades, graduation), then there would be no need to cheat. Hold athletes accountable for that which is athletic, and then hold students accountable for that which is academic. But don’t continue to conflate the two artificially because we want to create the appearance that we believe academics matter more than athletics (we don’t and they aren’t).

In conditions of scarcity—demanding of anyone outcomes over which that person has no control or no hope of accomplishing without a change in systemic conditions (such as academic outcomes an athlete is not prepared or able to accomplish or closing an achievement gap between populations of students)—the same person behaves differently than if that person were in a condition of abundance or privilege, “slack” as Mullainathan and Shafir call it.

Let’s turn to The Walking Dead, a world created by Kirkman, as he explains, in which “extreme situations…change” people.

In season 4 episode 14, “Look at the Flowers,” Carol, who has already demonstrated her ability to take extreme measures in “reduced circumstances” (season 4 episode 2, “Under My Skin”), offers another example paralleling June/Offred, as Dalton Ross explains:

If you thought Carol had a zero-tolerance attitude when she killed and burned two bodies back at the prison to stop the spread of a deadly virus, tonight she went truly sub-zero. The insanity began when little Lizzie stabbed and killed her sister Mika to prove that she would come back to life, leaving Carol to knife Mika’s brain to stop her from coming back as a zombie. She and Tyreese then had to decide what to do with Lizzie, with Carol saying that, “We can’t sleep with her and Judith under the same roof. She can’t be around other people.” And with that, Carol walked Lizzie outside, told her to “look at the flowers,” and then put a bullet in her brain.

Two children die, one at the hands of Carol, and that scene reminded me immediately of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, when George shoots his best friend Lenny.

After Lenny has killed Curley’s wife and run away to the hiding spot he and George have already designated, George finds Lenny:

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. “Look acrost the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.” (p. 103)

George and Lenny are hired hands, workers, pursuing their own American Dream. That pursuit has been difficult, including George trying to overcome Lenny having the mind of a child guiding the powerful and large body of a man. And it is in this final scene that George, like Carol, finds himself in “reduced circumstances.” While Lenny gazes across the river, George tells the same story he’s told hundreds of times, about the farm they will buy and the rabbits Lenny will tend as his own, and then:

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering. (p. 105)

Cultural assumptions are powerful lenses for judging outcomes.

If we assume the “dumb jock” stereotype to be true, we point our fingers at the student athletes as cheaters and allow our gaze never to consider that the entire system is failing those student athletes.

If we assume people in poverty are lazy (and use that as a mask for lingering racist stereotypes of African American and Latino/a students and people), we point our fingers and say they simply aren’t trying hard enough; they need “grit.” And we fail to recognize and confront the pervasive racism, classism, and sexism that constitute the “reduced circumstances” of their lives.

Of course, college athletes should not be cheating to maintain their access to participating in sports, but it may be important to consider who is responsible for putting them in that situation to begin with—and who benefits most from maintaining that system.


*An Honest Proposal: End Scholastic Sport in the U.S. (originally posted at Daily Kos 14 August 2011)

While teaching the introductory education course at my university, I have taught many of our athletes, and they often immediately make an extra effort to engage with me once I explain to them that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years, including many years as the head soccer coach for the boys and girls teams. I also tell them that my wife is a P.E. teacher as well as a varsity/junior varsity volleyball coach and varsity assistant/junior varsity head soccer coach.

My daughter was an elite high school and club soccer player throughout her academic life as well.

One semester, a young man from England sat in my class as a member of the university’s soccer team. He was a popular and thoughtful young man whose British accent garnered him a good deal of attention, but I was most struck by his willingness to discuss how the U.S. and his native England approached education and sport differently.

Soccer is an interesting sport through which to view those differences since, as this young man personified, many soccer athletes come to the U.S. for their education after they have come to terms with their not attaining the professional career they had been striving to achieve.

Yes, this young man was older than his peers and viewed sport in the U.S. as a ticket to education, but he was quick to note that he thought the direct connection between education and sport in the U.S. is ridiculous; no such connection exists in many countries outside the U.S. where sport is a club, not scholastic, activity.

And when I saw a recent story at Education Week titled “NCAA Approves Higher Academic Standards for Athletes,” I immediately thought about my soccer student from England, and I have been mulling this for some time: It is time we stop not only the charade that is “higher standards for student-athletes,” but also the corrosive connection between education and team sport.

The education reform we should address and never even mention is ending scholastic sports entirely in the U.S.

First, at the philosophical level, by creating an artificial relationship between academics and athletics (consider the unique leverage we use athletics for to coerce children to engage in their academics), we are devaluing both.

If academics truly matter, then why are we spending so much energy bribing and manipulating students to take their studies seriously?

And if athletics are truly less important than academics (along with band, chorus, art, drama, etc.), then why are so many professional lives spent in fields connected to athletics?

The truth is that academics and athletics are valuable in and of themselves, and that no real relationship exists between the two. Children and adults should be allowed and encouraged to engage in either without being held hostage to artificial guidelines—such as grade and graduation requirements for student-athletes in K-12 or college athletics.

In my life and career as an educator, I have witnessed hundreds of young people with gifts and passions that are daily trivialized and dampened because the adult world has fabricated coercive and dishonest mechanisms to shape children in ways that conform to false cultural narratives (high school algebra matters more than basketball, for example).

I have taught students gifted in art, who suffered in real ways taking required math courses; I have taught gifted athletes who were banished from sport teams due to grades, withering in classes and filled with resentment instead of being inspired to turn to their books because their sport was taken away; and I could make a list like this that goes on for pages.

It is both dehumanizing and dishonest to use sport to coerce children and young adults to suffer through the academics that we have deemed essential for them.

Now, on a practical level, athletic teams associated with schools and colleges are at the heart of the culture in the U.S.—parallel to the love and affection for local soccer clubs in England, for example.

I think that cultural aspect of scholastic sport matters and can and should be preserved, but that this is also corrupted by the dishonest and manipulative political game of claiming to have high standards for student-athletes when we know that at all levels these claims are little more than wink-wink, nod-nod.

My solution, then, is to end all scholastic sport in education throughout the U.S. and replace that with a club system that includes schools and colleges fielding club teams.

At the K-12 levels, club teams could be sponsored by any school that wishes to sponsor a team, and these teams would be delineated by age groups—common in club sport—but the schools would not be required to monitor their athletes’ grades or anything related to their schooling (just as we do not require any businesses to monitor their teen employees). In fact, the club associated with the schools would not have to include only students from that school.

K-12 schools would likely focus on community athletes, many of which will be in their schools, but the removal of the false connection between any student’s ability and desire for either schooling or sport would eliminate huge and tedious bureaucracy; corrosive tension among students, coaches, and educators; and superficial and erroneous cultural messages about “what matters.”

Here is also another important and practical matter related to scholastic sport—the inordinate amount of funding and time spent on managing athletics and athletic facilities at the school level. When we alleviate schools of scholastic sport, we also shift facilities to the club level, where public and private entities who wish to preserve sport can step in and assume these responsibilities.

At the college levels, colleges and universities would also field club teams—which could continue to be monitored by the NCAA—but their players would be drawn into those clubs for athletic purposes only, likely as a stepping stone to professional teams. Colleges and universities would be free to offer scholarships to those athletes wishing to attend college, but this would be purely within the purview of the colleges/universities and the athletes who wish to gain an education.

The end of scholastic sport is an end to hypocrisy, it is an acknowledgement that sport and academics both matter, and it is an education reform we never mention but could implement immediately with positive outcomes for everyone involved.

So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are not about students, athletes, or any sort of respect for the academic life. So-called high academic standards for student-athletes are more political pontificating and, worst of all, more of the tremendous coercion practices at the heart of a misguided American culture that claims one thing—the pursuit of individual freedom and democracy—while instituting another—the codifying of indoctrinating and manipulating the country’s children through our foundational institutions.

Ending scholastic sport is the first step toward honoring sport, academics, and the humanity of the youth of our free society.

Reclaiming “No Excuses”: A Reader

With Waiting for excuses for the inexcusable, Leonard Pitts Jr. offers us all a watershed moment—one that involves reclaiming the language and the narratives in order to take direct action against the one thing we refuse to acknowledge or change in the U.S., racism.

“What excuses will they make this time?” Pitts begins, emphasizing:

Meaning that cadre of letters-to-the-editor writers and conservative pundits who so reliably say such stupid things whenever the subject is race. Indeed, race is the third rail of American conscience; to touch it is to be zapped by rationalizations, justifications and lies that defy reason, but that some must embrace to preserve for themselves the fiction of liberty and justice for all. Otherwise, they’d have to face the fact that advantage and disadvantage, health and sickness, wealth and poverty, life and death, are still parceled out according to melanin content of skin.

And then Pitts makes a case that must stand as a model for any and all who seek the sort of equity and dignity that political leaders pay lip service to while ensuring nothing of the kind: Pitts presents evidence in the face of ideological claims with no basis in evidence:

One waits, then, with morbid fascination to see what excuse those folks will make as federal data released last week reveal that African-American children are significantly more likely to be suspended – from preschool. Repeating for emphasis: public preschool, that phase of education where the curriculum encompasses colors, shapes, finger painting and counting to 10. Apparently, our capacity for bias extends even there. According to the Department of Education, while black kids make up about 18 percent of those attending preschool, they account for 42 percent of those who are suspended once – and nearly half of those suspended more than once.

Let us then all confront The Undeniables:

  • Ideological narratives and policies built on those narratives—”grit,” “no excuses,” and “zero tolerance”—are almost exclusively driven by the privileged.
  • Those same policies and narratives are almost exclusively imposed on marginalized groups of students—African American, Latino/a, impoverished (see for example, the KIPP model, its primary focus, and its mantra: Work hard. Be nice.).
  • The consequences of those narratives and policies serve to maintain the interests of the privileged at the expense of the marginalized.

As I have been arguing repeatedly because the evidence is overwhelming: Anyone denying racism in the U.S. has an evidence problem (See Denying Racism Has an Evidence ProblemThe Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying RacismFrom Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence).

Yes, it is time for “grit” (often defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”). We must not waver from demanding an end to inequity in the form of racism, classism, and sexism.

Yes, it is time for “no excuses.” As Pitts explains, there are no excuses for the “made up facts,” the dodges, and the fabricated fairy tales designed to maintain the current imbalance of opportunity in the U.S. (see the Gritty White Hope lesson on Steve Jobs presented by NPR without any criticism).

Yes, it is time for “zero tolerance.” We must have zero tolerance for the false narratives (see the roots of seeking ideological narratives to prop up capitalistic goals) perpetuated by the privileged to keep most everyone else in a state of the compliant worker.

And thus, a reader:

Waiting for excuses for the inexcusable, Leonard Pitts Jr.

The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Programs, Walter S. Gilliam (2005)

Implementing Policies to Reduce the Likelihood of Preschool Expulsion, Walter S. Gilliam (2008)

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

End Zero-Tolerance Policies: A Reader

Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?

Beyond “Doubly Disadvantaged”: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Schools and Society

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

After posting What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?, I received comments and responses that are fairly represented in the comments at the original post from Peter Smyth and psmagorinsky (Peter Smagorinsky). For full disclosure, these two Peters are acquaintances that I respect a great deal, and thus, take their comments quite seriously.

To Peter Smyth’s concern (voiced by a few others offering feedback), I can clarify that my original post is a rejection of certification and a call for the need for rich and deep education degrees; thus, my argument in no way endorses Teach for America or other alternative certification programs that inherently avoid and marginalize education degrees (which are in fact the antithesis of my argument).

Peter Smagorinsky’s comment—notably “At the same time, I think that if we are constructed as being against being accountable for our teaching, we not only lose the PR battle, we are dodging responsibility for the end result of our teacher education”—requires a bit more explanation so I ask that you allow me to offer a series of personal anecdotes to make my case.

The summer of 1975 was traumatic for me and my family since I was diagnosed with scoliosis, requiring my parents to pay for and me to wear an elaborate and expensive back brace. This ordeal lasted from my 9th through my 12th grades.

Setting aside the personal angst from wearing a large back brace during my gangly and painfully self-conscious teen years, I have detailed that this experience with scoliosis became the breeding ground for my extensive comic book collection as well as many hours and years spent teaching myself to draw.

Since the brace made sitting nearly impossible, I began to stand at the end of the long bar that separated my family’s kitchen and living room. There I at first traced my favorite comic book superheroes from my collection; soon I began drawing freehand. Eventually, I was drawing large portraits of entire comic book panels and dramatic scenes—first carefully creating the artwork in pencil and then inking the works reflecting the comic book process (I even did some coloring over the years, again mimicking the comic book industry).

Over about 5 or 6 years, I became a fairly accomplished artist, branching our beyond comic book artwork to realistic pencil drawings (often from photography). For the purposes of this blog post, I want to emphasize that at no point did I ever have any formal courses, no teacher of any kind related to being a visual artist.

I read and studied comic books, I researched how comic book art was created, and I bought a few art books, mostly large books of sketches to use as practice.

Overlapping my teenage years spent collecting comic books, teaching myself to draw, and contemplating a career as a comic book artist, I grew up on a golf course, where I worked (both in the club house as an assistant and at the pool as a lifeguard). I also spent many hours of my life hitting range balls (often 300 at a time) and playing 18-27 holes of golf many days each week.

Yes, I also contemplated the life of the professional golfer.

While in college, I secured an assistant pro job at a different golf course, where I spent a good deal of time talking with two professional golf instructors. These men gave golf lessons on the course driving range and sometimes on the course itself.

One golf pro had never had a career as a touring pro, and I was able to shoot scores similar to his. The other had briefly played on the tour in the Ben Hogan era, but his promise of a tour career was cut short by a car accident.

From talking with these two golf instructors and watching their work and their students, I recognized something incredibly important: Most of the people taking the lessons essentially stayed about the same in their ability to score on the golf course. The older golf instructor often said directly to me that he could teach anyone the proper grip and motions in a golf swing, but that beyond that, the outcomes of how any person played golf was really not something he could teach or control.

With learning to play golf, technique, physical aptitude, practice, and such were all intricately intertwined. Few people practiced or played as much golf as I did in those years, and I was never going to be a touring professional. Never. (Likely too, I was never going to be a professional comic book artist.)

About twenty years after those teen and early 20s years, I had become a public school English teacher; my life was steeped in reading and writing (now traceable to those comic books I was also reading voraciously along with science fiction).

A few years after receiving my EdD, I was fortunate to be the lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project in their summer institutes for teachers. In that first summer, a beginning teacher, Dawn Mitchell (who would go on to teach and work for SWP as well as adjunct where I now work in teacher education), and I began working on her efforts to write poetry. Dawn was a wonderful teacher, a gifted writer of prose, and an eager as well as frequent reader.

When I read her poem drafts, however, I felt she had not attained the same genre/form awareness about poetry that she displayed about prose.

I had been writing poetry since my freshman year of college, had published a fair number of poems (see “horea,” “Mary (sea of bitterness),” and “quilting”), and had been teaching high school students to write poetry for almost twenty years. Four of my high school students’ poems were included in one of my earliest articles in English Journal, in fact (see Ashley Mason and Leigh Hix here; Lauren Caldwell and Kris Harrill here).

The summer institute workshop format allowed Dawn and me an ideal opportunity for examining how to develop poetic sensibilities. And Dawn’s work as a poet soon rose to the fine level of her prose.

While Dawn was growing as a writer and poet, I too was learning to hone my craft not as a poet, but as a teacher of writing poetry—developing the ability to mine craft from reading poetry and helping writers transfer those craft lessons into their original work.

Of the many things I teach, I remain convinced teaching someone to write poetry is possibly my most refined skill.

That said, I cannot claim ever that I can produce a poet from that teaching as acts themselves that must be viewed as their own evidence of quality.

What does all this have to do with what’s wrong with teacher education, broadly, and Smagorinsky’s concern, narrowly?

First, teachers and formal teaching are important, but not necessary or easily defined, aspects of learning, especially as that learning manifests itself in some observable outcomes—as my learning to draw is but one example.

Thus, seeking to identify direct, isolated, and causational relationships among teachers, teaching, learning, and observable learning outcomes is simplistic and a fundamental misrepresentation of each of these.

No teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. A poor teacher can be involved when a learner produces outstanding outcomes. And a brilliant teacher can be involved when a learner produces weak outcomes.


Because a teacher of anything has control only over the conditions of the learning experience—as my second and third example are offered as evidence.

Golf instructors and teachers of writing poetry can never promise skilled golfers or brilliant poets. Many other elements besides the teachers or the teaching are involved—and such is the case with all teaching and learning.

And therein lies my essential disagreement with continuing to focus on learner outcomes when seeking accountability for teachers and teaching.

How did I teach myself to draw? All of the conditions necessary were provided or occurred—incredibly supportive parents who bought the comic books and art supplies, my own unfortunate situation with scoliosis, my fortuitous discovery of a proclivity for visual art, and my own intrinsic motivation that fueled my hours and hours of practice. (By the way, I think I would have benefited greatly from a professional teacher, but the conditions in which I taught myself are evidence of how important conditions are in contrast to a teacher.)

In the larger picture, however, elite golfers, visual artists, and poets cannot be taught to be elite. A substantial number of unpredictable elements are involved, and direct teaching and teachers are important but not even necessary.

Learner outcomes are simply not credible artifacts for teacher or teaching quality.

Teacher education (and teaching accountability) must set aside that paradigm of accountability, and begin to focus on the conditions of teaching instead.

Admitting that teacher education cannot guarantee teacher quality from their programs is not a cop-out. It is the same as the golf instructor who despite his best efforts cannot guarantee golfer quality, the teacher of poetry who cannot guarantee a poet.

By continuing to pretend that teacher quality is the most important element in student learning, we are in fact devaluing and misrepresenting the importance of teachers and teaching.

The Politics of Misinformation in Education Reform

Appointed and elected officials related to education have some important characteristics in common. Consider U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and South Carolina Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.

Neither have experience or education in the field of K-12 education, despite their primary responsibilities being related to K-12 education.

And because of their appointed (Duncan) or elected (Zais) position, they have a primary and nearly unchallenged voice in both the narratives about education and the policies implemented in public schools.

As well, since they have that access, Duncan and Zais often conduct tours and speeches promoted as informational or celebratory, but always use those masks to achieve something quite different: driving a set of ideologies and narratives that are mostly misinformation.

Superintendent Zais has been touring SC under the guise of celebrating successful schools in the state, but at each stop, he, instead, offers passive-aggressive and unsubstantiated claims directed less at the schools he appears to be praising than at other schools, teachers, and students.

Zais presents this pattern of misinformation in a commentary for The Greenville News (21 March 2014), which begins:

I am writing to set the record straight about public education in South Carolina.

The opening points made by Zais focus on his claim that funding and poverty levels are not the key determining factors in how successful schools are. To make that case he identifies two schools directly:

In Greenville County School District, Hollis Academy Elementary School has a poverty rating of 99 percent and received a grade of 97 percent, an A, on their federal report card. It’s one of the highest performing elementary schools in South Carolina. Welcome Elementary School is also in Greenville County. It has virtually identical demographics and received a grade of 47 percent, an F, on their report card.

Hollis Academy Elementary School (99.48 PI) and Welcome Elementary School (98.32) as high-poverty schools in the same school district (Greenville County) do appear to make Zais’s case, except he fails to identify the SC school report card data—ones that provide an important metric, “schools like us.”

On the 2013 school report cards (issued by the SC Department of Eduction which Zais heads), Hollis Academy Elementary School receives an absolute rating of “Average,” which is essentially typical of “schools like us” (Excellent, 0; Good, 9; Average, 73; Below Average, 37; At-Risk, 13):

Hollis 2013 copy

On the same report card, Welcome Elementary School receives an absolute rating of “Average,” which is essentially typical of “schools like us” (Excellent, 0; Good, 10; Average, 85; Below Average, 43; At-Risk, 15):

Welcome 2013

Two points must be highlighted, if we seek to set the record straight: Hollis and Welcome are relatively similar in their composition and their outcomes; however, as the data above suggests (the numbers are different, note, in the range of “schools like us”), Hollis and Welcome are not identical in populations served.

Thus, the only way Zais can make his case is to cherry-pick data, conveniently omit data, and then make a really mean-spirited claim for which he offers no data:

The difference between high poverty schools that are excelling and those that are failing is neither funding, the education level of the parents, nor demographics. It’s the competence of the adults in the system. Where schools have capable principals and effective teachers, poor kids will learn.

The sweeping claims made by Zais, however, are not supported by the research base—and not once does Zais offer any evidence from research showing that “competence of the adults in the system” is a determining factor in student outcomes. Not once (notably because such evidence doesn’t exist).

Teacher quality (and VAM advocacy), “more with less,” funding doesn’t matter, and X practices and/or teacher quality can add “days of learning” or “years of learning”—all of these claims have been debunked:

Just as Duncan has continued a legacy among recent USDOE Secretaries of Education (Paige, Spellings), Zais represents the politics of misinformation in education reform that exposes our appointed and elected education officials as either incompetent or dishonest—neither quality suggesting that they should be driving our education narratives or policies.

Talk about the Passion

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

All across the upstate of South Carolina recently, yard signs have been appearing: Stop Common Core (see the one held in the photo below):

Stop Common Core from Stop Common Core in South Carolina

For those of us who have rejected the Common Core movement from the beginning, however, these signs are more a message about the “passionate intensity” of the worst and that “the best lack all conviction”:

A rally to Stop Common Core

The most fervent and vocal Common Core challengers, as the organization and signs above represent, are people making baseless claims: Common Core standards were written by Bill Ayers (they weren’t), Common Core standards are a communist plot by Obama (they are the product of the National Governors Association), and the list goes on—just search Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck on Common Core.

While the misinformed are galvanized and passionate in their efforts to stop Common Core, the vast majority of educators have committed themselves to doing as they are told—scrambling as best they can to implement Common Core.

The reasons to reject Common Core are important and relatively clear—reasons based in the research base that shows no correlation between the presence or quality of standards and student outcomes, that shows no correlation between standards and achieving equity, and that shows the enormous costs of implementing new standards and new high-stakes tests are unlikely to produce returns to justify those costs.

And the irony is that the uninformed and misinformed movement against Common Core—a rabid group that appears to see Common Core as a harbinger of the Apocalypse, worthy of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” or Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”—is evidence itself that “passionate intensity” trumps reason, research, expertise, and experience—notably when those armed with reason, research, expertise, and experience “lack all conviction.”

To paraphrase Einstein, the Common Core debate shows us that knowledge without passion is lame, passion without knowledge is blind.

For teachers, it is well past time to talk about the passion.

Combien de temps?

“Talk About The Passion”

R.E.M., Murmur

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

I belong to two communities that are central to my life—educators and cyclists.

So when a cyclist and friend sent me an article on the importance of how cyclists conduct themselves as groups on the roads, I was struck by the opening quote included by the writer, Richard Fries:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  –Walt Kelly, Pogo

Immediately, the spirit of the article—many times motorist antagonism toward cyclists can be traced to cyclist behavior—resonated with me as someone who has been cycling seriously for about 30 years, including a great deal of time and effort spent posting and leading group rides. But the sentiment of this piece on group cycling also spoke to me as a teacher and teacher educator because when I ponder what is wrong with teacher education, I notice that the enemy is often us—teachers and teacher educators.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez, dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, examines the current state as well as the political and public perception of teacher education in Defining Teacher-Prep Accountability:

Much has been written and discussed of late about the debate over the best method of assessing teacher-preparation programs. As the dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, I understand that meaningful assessment of teacher preparation requires a multifaceted approach based on a robust research methodology and focused on program outcomes. A sound study, as researchers know, begins with a viable research question. The design and method of data collection then flow from that question. Moreover, the scientific validity of conclusions reached on the basis of the data depends on the ethical application of research principles and, where appropriate, validation of results through peer review and replication.

Two important aspects of Gonzalez’s commentary occur in the opening: He acknowledges the impact and influence of National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and then takes a firm stand against NCTQ’s reports and methodologies.

NCTQ’s reports have received essentially free passes by the mainstream press, but have been discredited in detail among researchers, educators, and bloggers. That dynamic is a powerful picture of the larger context of what is wrong with teacher education.

First, teacher education (like public schools and public school teachers) is not failing in the ways claimed by NCTQ—or other think tanks, political leaders and appointees, and the mainstream media.

Second, the noise created by NCTQ and others promoting misinformation masks the very real ways in which teacher education is failing (and, again, this parallels a similar pattern found in education reform more broadly; see An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform).

While I applaud Gonzalez and Indiana University for taking a politically unpopular but credible and evidence-based stance against NCTQ (too few in teacher education did take that stand), the last part of Gonzalez’s commentary reveals just what is wrong with teacher education.

In the outline offered by Gonzalez, accountability based on standards and outcomes is, once again, reinforced:

If I were to design a study to hold preparation programs accountable for their graduates’ performance, as the group Teach Plus Indianapolis has challenged me to do, I would start with the question of whether a given teacher-preparation program produces graduates who can work effectively in school classrooms to increase student learning and achieve other valued educational outcomes. Then, I would select or create appropriate measures of student learning and related educational outcomes, as well as ways to assess teacher effectiveness on the impact of those measures.

And therein lies the problem.

What’s wrong with teacher education? In brief, the problem with teacher education is the maze of bureaucracy that constitutes certification and accreditation.

And that maze of standards (and the perpetual changing of those standards) feeds a misguided overarching paradigm: accountability linked to outcomes.

In both education reform and teacher education, accountability is misguided and it causes more harm than good—notably because the traditional accountability paradigm seeks to hold one agent accountable for the outcomes of other agents, whether that be teachers accountable for student test scores or colleges/departments of education accountable for the student test scores of their candidates.

That accountability fails because the focus is on outcomes, and those outcomes are outside the control of the agent being held accountable.

Additionally, since that accountability is flawed, those agents being held accountable are reduced to documenting meticulously that they have served the standards as a defense against their inability to control the outcomes.

The result is dysfunctional because too much of both teacher educator’s and educator’s time is spent correlating their lessons and assessments with standards (and not enough time preparing by studying the content of their field and the needs of their students), and then wasting a tremendous amount of time completing the external mandates related to certification and accreditation.

Gonzalez mentions the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)—which ironically represents the fundamental flaw with the entire accreditation process since this organization is a new version of two earlier accreditation organizations. Accreditation (like certification) is a minefield of every-moving targets, a bureaucratic process for the sake of being bureaucratic. In fact, the only constant in the worlds of certification and accreditation is that both perpetually change—always in pursuit of the right (or next) standards.

CAEP will no better serve teacher education than Common Core will save K-12 public education. We have decades of evidence that these processes have never worked, and we have no evidence that anything different will happen this time around (except the new elements, such as VAM, are guaranteed to increase the harm).

Again, the failure of teacher education is in the bureaucracy of accountability, standards, and focusing on outcomes. The solution, then, would be for teacher education to embrace the foundational aspects of the disciplines.

I have stated this before, but it is worth repeating: Every moment I have spent achieving certification has been a waste of my time; every moment spent in rich and engaging education courses and programs has been infinitely valuable. For example, the road to certification as an undergraduate was disappointing (except for some excellent professors), and that contrasts strongly with my doctoral program (including no certification requirements), which was the single most important element in my path to being an educator.

As an undergraduate, I learn to be a bureaucrat; as a graduate student, I learned to be a scholar.

I think even the best among us in the field of education remain trapped in a low self-esteem mindset: we are afraid, because we know this is what other disciplines say about education, that we are in fact not a real field of study; therefore, we manufacture the most complex systems imaginable to make our field seem valuable, “rigorous,” professional. And thus:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  –Walt Kelly, Pogo

Certification and accreditation are mind-numbingly complicated, I fear, as a sort of low-self-esteem theater. The maze of standards, rubrics, data charts, and reports surely proves that we are a complex field, that we are working hard?

Two things about that are nonsense: (1) all the bureaucracy of certification and accreditation confirms the worst slurs against education as a field, and (2) the field of education is a rich and credible discipline, if only we’d trust that and embrace it.

So allow me to end with an anecdote.

As an 18-year teacher of high school English, I entered higher education and teacher education. Soon afterward, I asked if I could be spared to teach an occasional freshman composition course (my first love). Although the politics of an education professor (with an EdD, no less) teaching in the English department were more treacherous than I anticipated, I was finally allowed one section.

When I met with the English department chair to discuss the course, I asked to see a sample syllabus. The chair, at first, seemed puzzled, but he did shuffle through his desk and around his office until he found a couple.

One syllabus was the front of one page, and the other, the front and part of the back of one page.

My syllabus for the introductory education course I taught was 17 pages.

The field of education—including teacher education—I fear, is mired in bureaucracy because we do not trust ourselves; we do not trust ourselves in the way that the disciplines do in chemistry and English and history right on our campuses all across higher education.

We are our own worst enemies when we persist down the accountability road, demanding standards, rubrics, data charts, and the external review of bureaucratic agencies to whom we abdicate the responsibility of bestowing certification on candidates and accreditation on departments and colleges because we do not trust our field or ourselves.


“We Brought It Upon Ourselves”: University-Based Teacher Education and the Emergence of Boot-Camp-Style Routes to Teacher Certification, Daniel Friedrich

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

ac·a·dem·icadjective \a-kə-ˈde-mik\ having no practical importance; not involving or relating to anything real or practical.


Currently, I have three seniors on track to certify as secondary English teachers doing extended field experiences in local schools—one is placed in an eighth-grade ELA class and another is teaching college-bound students in a high school.

While observing at the middle school, I arrived early one day while the full-time teacher was finishing a discussion of Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. The teacher had to cut the read aloud short, and one student begged for him to continue reading. The teacher asked for the books to be passed forward, prompting that same student to ask to hold on to his copy so he could keep reading (the teacher arranged for the student to retrieve a copy later, by the way).

In the high school class, the teacher-to-be has been teaching poetry by Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath—I observed a wonderful discussion of Plath’s “Metaphors”—but the full-time teacher has stressed that students not be offered biographical background information so students could focus on reading the texts cold—in part, as preparation for Advanced Placement Literature testing.


An essential element in the ELA Common Core standards is “close reading,” endorsed by David Coleman (now president of the College Board, home of AP and SAT testing):

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

Although “close reading” is a relatively new term, I have noted that its foundational elements are essentially perpetuating the dominant literary analysis focus of public education throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, New Criticism.

As Ferguson explains, “close reading” is only part of the literacy approach needed by students:

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”…

Critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King’s rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.

“Close reading,” then, is reading out of context—and ultimately, it isn’t reading at all because the reader and the world are rendered irrelevant.


Prompted by an analysis of people of color in children’s books (what Christopher Myers calls “[t]his apartheid of literature”), Walter Dean Myers examines his own journey as a reader and then a writer in Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?

Myers recalls finding books and reading in his mother’s lap, which led to comic books and eventually what many would consider classic literature:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.

The first part of Myers’s story appears nearly idyllic, and could have served as an argument for requiring all students to read the canon, the Great Books argument. But when Myers’s family experienced “dark times,” he concludes:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

And although Myers struggled against his own personal “dark times”—”My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive”—he did discover James Baldwin:

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

Ultimately, Myers’s journey is a story itself, a story about the context of reading, the humanity of reading, the inescapable web of reader, writer, text, and world:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?


Late to the party, I finally read 1Q84 a few years ago, setting off a passionate love affair with the writing of Haruki Murakami.

I have read all of his books and am now awaiting the English translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As I typically do, Murakami has a bit of a shrine on my office book shelf:

Murakami books

Until I began reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, however, I was missing a very important element in my love of Murakami’s work. Unlike Myers’s recognition of himself in his discovery of James Baldwin, I did not think about my Self in Murakami, who is Japanese and a generation removed from me about halfway between my father and me.

Since Running is part memoir, I began to see comments by Murakami about his essential nature—claims of his true Self that speak very much to me as well as about me. Murakami, despite the details of our races and our histories, share many traits that I am convinced are at the root of my love for his fiction.


I was also late to the Breaking Bad party, and coincidentally, I was reading Murakami’s Running while I was just getting to Season 3 of Breaking Bad. So I was taken aback when the character Gale Boetticher shared with the main character, Walter White, how he came to cook meth—a journey of rejecting the merely academic world of science for the magic of the lab.

To fully explain his reasons, and despite his embarrassment about his being a self-proclaimed nerd, Boetticher quotes Walt Whitman:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


I am reading Murakami’s Running and pausing again and again as his confessions of his true Self are ones I too could make—confessions about solitude, about assuming others will not like him.

But I am also struck by Murakami’s comments about formal education:

I never disliked long-distance running. When I was at school I never much cared for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time I didn’t want to do it. Whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, though, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had….

If you’ll allow me to take a slight detour from running, I think I can say the same thing about me and studying. From elementary school up to college I was never interested in things I was forced to study….I only began to enjoy studying after I got through the educational system and became a so-called member of society….

I always want to advise teachers not to force all junior and senior high school students to run the same course, but I doubt anybody’s going to listen to me. That’s what schools are like. The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school. (pp. 34-35, 45)


It is 1943, and English educator Lou LaBrant is deeply concerned about the teaching of language in a world combating Hitler:

Today in a world of hyperbole, it is easy to make sweeping statements and to have them accepted. We must therefore be cautious when thinking of our work. Teachers are, by the nature of their work, largely outside immediate war activities. They spend their days with children, whose greatest contribution will be made after the war….

Far too often as a people we are led astray by orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth, but whose meanings are false, shallow, or misleading. We make their path easy when we approve essays, stories, or poems which are imitations or are full of words used for the sake of sound. (pp. 93, 95)

It is 2014, and I am deeply concerned that LaBrant’s warnings are as significant today as teachers of English face the “sweeping statements” of “orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth” in regards to Common Core and “close reading.”

And I am certain her criticism of how books are assigned rings true today:

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children. (p. 95)


Close reading of books assigned to children, books in which children cannot find themselves, is reading out of context, it is merely academic, and without the magic—”I was lifted by it,” Walter Dean Myers says about Baldwin—our students will likely “bec[o]me tired and sick,/Till rising and gliding out [they will wander] off by [themselves],” concluding that teachers, schools, and books have no meaning for them.

Close reading and de-contextualizing books will, I fear, contribute to more of Christopher Myers’s denounced “apartheid of literature”; instead, he asserts:

The children I know, the ones I meet in school visits, in juvenile detention facilities like the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Maryland, in ritzy private schools in Connecticut, in cobbled-together learning centers like the Red Rose School in Kibera, Nairobi — these children are much more outward looking. They see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed….

So now to do my part — because I can draw a map as well as anybody. I’m talking with a girl. She’s at that age where the edges of the woman she will become are just starting to press against her baby-round face, and I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.


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