Evidence Must Trump Idealism: A Reader

Many of us are compelled by idealism, and I certainly entered education as a career over 30 years ago because of my faith in the power of learning (specifically literacy), especially as it has enriched my own life.

But evidence must trump idealism, or we are destined to remain trapped in the corrosive patterns of inequity that keep us from achieving the American Dream.

As disheartening as the facts are, poverty is destiny, education is not the great equalizer, and the U.S. is not a post-racial society.

I’m sorry, but these are the realities as we have them in the U.S. as of 2014.

Before you shoot the messenger, however, let me encourage you to spend some time with the following:

Once we face what the evidence shows, then we become equipped with the foundation upon which we can work to build toward those ideals that must matter among a free people.

NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

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

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?

As I have noted, a common thread running through my blogs is the carelessness among the media covering education.

Case in point, yet another tone-deaf and completely unsupportable piece has appeared in the The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): Duncan deserves high marks.

With just a modicum of effort, almost every claim made in this piece is easily refuted by something the mainstream press seems determined to ignore, evidence.

I have called for the “Oliver Ruler” and  a critical free press as well as posting an open letter to journalists, but many journalists remain committed to “balance” and thus are unwilling to evaluate the quality of claims or the credibility of people or positions.

But there appears to be some hope across the pond (it seems Oliver’s land can see what we cannot):

Stop giving airtime to crackpots, Phil Plait

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

So once again, not all issues have “both sides” and thus do not require seeking out balance for the sake of balance. As well, not all people or claims are credible; therefore, that those people or claims exist does not justify their being acknowledged. It is essentially malpractice to treat unequal claims as equal.

While the BBC is directly addressing science, in the U.S. the education reform agenda is currently being crippled by inexpert and incompetent leadership that is being reinforced by a media blinded by their pursuit of balance at the expense of credibility and evidence.

Leaving me still pining, O, free press, where art thou?

GUEST POST: Denny Taylor, Garn Press

GUEST POST: Denny Taylor, Garn Press

 Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing to urgently request your help. If you find the political circumstance and the research base for the four propositions that I have outlined in this letter are compelling, and you support the course of action suggested here please send this letter to friends and colleagues. Use your websites, Facebook, and any other means to get the message out. Given that I rarely enter the public sphere my friends will know that the situation of which I write is pressing. Time is of the essence, I fear.

Some of you will have read books I have written based on forty years of longitudinal research in family, community, and schools settings with children, families, and teachers who live and work in challenging social and physical environments. Except for my doctoral dissertation, all my research has taken place in sites of urban and rural poverty.

About fifteen years ago I became more focused on catastrophic events, including extreme weather events, industrial disasters, war and armed conflict, and acts of mass violence that occur with little warning and in a matter of a few seconds change the lives of children, teachers, and their families forever.

I haven’t published during this fifteen year time period, but I have been working as a researcher and writing on a daily basis. Much of the time I have spent studying the research on trauma and mass trauma with a mentor in the field. Still more time has been spent studying Earth system science, and eventually writing qualitative research papers that were peer reviewed by researchers in the physical sciences. Based on the reviews, I have participated in research conferences and meetings with Earth system scientists whose research focuses on quantitative studies on the anthropogenic changes that are taking place to the planet.

My own research has evolved, and I have found my place between scientists, policy makers, and the public. The mix of social and physical sciences is making it possible for me to share the findings of these fifteen years of daily study, which are firmly grounded in scientific evidence, and in the lived knowledge that has come from living and working in places where catastrophic events have taken place.

There are eight book length manuscripts on my bookshelf and the first three books based on them are being published this summer. These books are very different from each other, but they all focus on the interconnections between two of the greatest threats to our children’s future:

  1. The dismantling of the US public education system; and
  2. The acceleration of anthropogenic change to the planet.

The Earth system scientists from the global scientific community who participated in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report categorized climate change as “unequivocal”, and 195 countries signed documents in agreement with these scientists. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced 40 reports, the first in 2005, raising concerns about climate change and in the 2014 report the GAO has elevated the impacts of climate change to “high risk” status. The Department of Defense (DOD) has issued similar reports and warnings and is preparing for catastrophic events that might occur because of climate change.

But the US Congress still refuses to act. Many members of Congress are still denying that climate change is unequivocal, and they refuse to acknowledge that both the people of the United States and the entire global community are at “high risk”.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that there is now one political party in the US Congress that is not only denying climate change, but has powerful members on Congressional sub-committees convened to focus on climate change who are also outspoken in denying basic science.

The three books connect the dots between the dismantling of the US public education system and the denial of climate change, and they present four propositions:

First Proposition: By defunding public education the federal government is selling the future of children in the US to private corporations, creating huge revenues for companies and a bonanza for shareholders, while at the same time undermining and destabilizing the neighborhoods and communities in which schools are privatized.

Second Proposition: By profligating denial of climate change, defunding and limiting expenditures on mitigating climate and environmental problems, the US Congress is actively engaged in protecting the corporate interests that have supported their political campaigns, while willfully ignoring the very real and very grave threat that exists to the American people, especially children, and to all human life on the planet.

Third proposition: By defunding public education and selling the children in the US to private corporations that are in large part responsible for climate change and the destruction of the environment, the federal government is ensuring the indoctrination of America’s children into the State-Corporate Complex that is threatening their future, while at the same time actively interfering with their capacity to develop the problem-solving capabilities they will need to tackle the potentially life-threatening anthropogenic changes to the planet that they will experience in their lifetime.

Fourth proposition:If we are serious about preparing our children for an uncertain future, in which they will be confronted by many perils, then we must stop the corporate education revolution immediately and recreate the public school system based on democratic principles, ensuring equality and opportunity for all children to participate in projects and activities that will ensure their active engagement in re-visioning and re-imagining human life on Earth.

For our children and the planet, the third and fourth propositions are far reaching in their implications. The three books unpackage the political propaganda, and focus on the scientific research that is being obfuscated for political power, and corporate revenues and profits. Each book explores the relationships that exist between what Noam Chomsky calls “the State-Corporate Complex” and the acceleration of climate change, and the defunding and corporatization of public education. Together they provide compelling evidence why the Common Core should be abandoned and Pearson’s “global education revolution” immediately ended.

Here are the titles of the three books:

Nineteen Clues: Great Transformation Can Be Achieved Through Collective (just published in paper and also available in electronic formats for Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and iBooks).

Save Our Children, Save Our School, Pearson Broke the Golden Rule (proof copies of this political satire have arrived and the actual book should be available in two weeks with eBooks to follow).

Keys to the Future: A Parent-Teacher Guide to Saving the Planet (is in the final edit stage and will be available in paper by September, again with eBooks to follow).

Together, based on the evidence, these books make the case that there are three things we know for sure:

  1. What happens to the future lives of our children and grandchildren depends on us;
  2. We should not expect the powerbrokers of the State-Corporate Complex to come to our aid or rescue our children;
  3. Extreme inequality is not only bad for people it is bad for the planet – the poor are at greater peril than the rich.

Many teachers and parents are already leading the way in the struggle for equality and more humane learning environments for children. Their courageous activism is the struggle not only for the re-establishment of the public education system, but also for the future of humanity.

The dangers to our children are real, and at Garn we volunteering our time to work for the Press, because we regard ourselves as first responders in an emergency situation. Our mission is to publish books with actionable knowledge that can be of use to educators and the public. We are hopeful for the future and we put our trust in the people, especially parents and teachers, who are working to make the planet a child safe zone.

Please consider supporting Garn Press by sharing this letter with everyone in your social networks and encouraging your friends and colleagues to read the books. Reviews are welcome!

Our hope at Garn is that when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did to respond to climate change we will be able to tell them that:

  1. We saved their schools and made them sites of equity and justice;
  2. We made their schools places where every child developed the capacity to be resourceful and resilient;
  3. We insisted that they had the opportunity to participate in great projects about the Earth and about the Universe;
  4. We made sure their education included both the scientific and the literary so they could see the deep connections between these ways of thinking and ways of being;
  5. We were adamant that they learned together in classrooms that valued the ways in which they could support one another;
  6. We insisted that their classes included the arts, dance, music, drama, painting and drawing in seamless lessons that encouraged joyfulness and a sense of belonging to a community.

We will be able to tell them that because of the ways in which we insisted they were educated the ethos of the nation changed. Because of their children the public began to regard the Earth differently. People began to reassess what was important to them. They acted on what they already knew, that liberty cannot exist without justice, and that the price of great wealth for a few was too high for the public to pay and would no longer be tolerated.

We will tell them we stood strong, and we used these newfound beliefs in our re-Imagining of the ways we live on the planet. We will tell them because we love our children so much the world changed.

We must do whatever we can to make this happen, so we can tell our children, “We worked together and we made the Earth a child-safe zone.”

Denny Taylor

New York

July 15, 2014

Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still

Since it is just sports, that LeBran James and Carmelo Anthony are wielding a significant amount of power during the NBA off-season could easily go unnoticed except for sports fans and those enthralled by ESPN and sports media.

But how James and Anthony are framed should be placed in context, notably the recent confrontation and arrest of an African American female professor at Arizona State University and this post, It’s Not Race, It’s Class…And Other Stories Folks Now Tell.

The U.S. is not post-racial, and claims that the country is may be that most powerful evidence that racism is not even below the surface, that denying racism has an evidence problem. It seems important—much like the “thug” labeling of Richard Sherman—that James is being accused of holding the NBA hostage.

Shouldn’t we investigate how often powerful and wealthy white men are framed in such language? (Never.)

In that context, I think we should revisit, then, the NBA finals from 2011, one in which the framing of James and Nowitzki reveal how professional sports in the U.S. expose the enduring power of racism as well as illuminate the pervasive influence of racism throughout education reform.

NBA Finals and “No Excuses” Charters

After game one of the 2011 NBA Finals, pundits began to clamor to reappraise the status of the Miami Heat, a team nearly equally loved and despised for the same reason—the acquisition of LeBron James. But in the closing seconds of game two, Dirk Nowitzki made a spinning, driving lay up with his splinted left hand to seal a huge fourth-quarter comeback, spurring Gregg Doyel at CBSSports.com to write a column titled “Heat return to their smug ways and Mavs make them pay.”

Consider some of Doyel’s comments. Frame this about the Heat—”Ultimately, this was everything we have come to expect from these fascinating, infuriating Miami Heat: Hollywood as hell. Damn good. But a bit too full of themselves”—with this comment about Nowitzki:

Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Heat—a quiet, humble, mentally tough SOB. He played with a splint on the middle finger of his left hand, and for more than 45 minutes he didn’t play well. But he scored Dallas’ final nine points, seven in the last minute, four with his left hand. That game-winning layup? He created it, then finished it, with his left hand. It probably hurt, but Nowitzki had more important things to worry about than pain. He had a game to win.

When I read this column, I immediately thought about a recent column by Dana Goldstein,“Integration and the ‘No Excuses’ Charter School Movement.” In her piece, she examines “no excuses” ideologies connected with the new charter school movement:

That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model—the “No Excuses” model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network—is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.

Later in her essay, Goldstein makes one comment that continues to trouble me: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.”

It is the intersection of the column about game two of the NBA finals and Goldstein’s article on “no excuses” charter schools that reveals for us the powerful influence of middle-class norms (a code for “white”) on every aspect of American society.

Throughout the NBA playoffs this year, the story no one is talking about has been the narratives following Nowitzki and LeBron James.

The NBA in Black and White

Nowitzki, a German-born centerpiece of the Dallas Mavericks, has been repeatedly compared to Larry Bird, one of the NBA all-time greats who shares with Nowitzki an important quality—race—which appears to translate into a default assessment—working-class ethos, the ability to rise above limitations through hard work (the personification of middle-class myths).

James, while often championed as the “next” Michael Jordan, has increasingly been compared to Magic Johnson, the arch-rival of Bird from an era decades in the past. Also like the Magic comparison, James now carries the “Hollywood” label—and that means too much talent and not enough humility, not enough effort.

And as the narrative about the Heat and the Mavericks (let’s not ignore the coincidental symbolism in the team names and the geographical significance of Miami beach against Texas) continues to play out, we read the subtext of class and race that drives not what happens on the court but how the media and public craft those narratives as a response to the players.

Culturally, we want Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win because that proves us right [1], the triumph of the middle-class norm. And we hope that a Nowitzki/Maverick win will go one step further by putting James and the Heat in their place, creating the ultimate personification of the middle-class norm—James’s talent plus Nowitzki’s humble working-class persona.

And this is what troubles me about Goldstein’s sentence from above: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone.” This leaves open an endorsement for continuing to champion “no excuses” schools as long as they target children of color, children trapped in poverty, and children struggling against being English language learners.

Middle-class and affluent children don’t need “no excuses” schools, the unspoken message goes, because they are already on board; they are a part of the normalization of middle-class (white) myths of who people should be, what people should say, and how people should behave.

We should not be contemplating for whom “no excuses” schools are appropriate because “no excuses” schools are not appropriate for any children in a free society. “No excuses” schools are the worst type of classism and racism, and they are the ultimate reduction of education to enculturation.

“No excuses” ideology denies human agency, human dignity, perpetuating a Western caste system of knowing ones place.

Yes, as a society, we want LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh to sit down and shut up, but we also want some children to learn this as well. The elite remain elite as long as the rest remain compliant.

Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150). [2]

And Bill Ayers (2001) recognizes the silencing purposes of schools:

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (p. 51) [3]

The “no excuses” miracle schools are no miracles at all. They are mirages carefully crafted to reinforce cultural myths. They are nightmares for childhood and the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are tragic examples of allowing the ends to justify the means.

If we are a people who embrace human freedom and agency, if we are a people who believe all people are created equal, if we are a people who trust the power of education as central to that freedom and equality, then there simply is no excuse for perpetuating “no excuses” charter schools that are designed to squelch the possibility of LeBron James-type agency among more people and throughout our society, and not just safely within the confines of a basketball court.

For Further Reading

Other People’s Racism: Race, Rednecks, and Riots in a Southern High School

[1] Consider the same dynamic in the 2014 finals in terms of the San Antonio Spurs as a hard-working franchise, not a star franchise.

[2] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

[3] Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schneider’s Ten Reform Claims: A Reader

Jack Schneider’s Ten Reform Claims That Teachers Should Know How to Challenge provides a powerful framework for educators to mobilize our much needed roles as teachers for the wider public.

In this post, I repeat his ten claims as a basis for including evidence that supports teachers (or anyone) anticipating and then challenging the flawed claims and policies coming from the reform movement, primarily driven by political leadership and advocacy without experience or expertise in education. [Each claim is posted below verbatim from Schneider.]

Claim 1: American teachers need more incentive to work hard.

Claim 2: Schools need disruptive innovation. The status quo is unacceptable.

Claim 3: The public schools are in crisis.

Claim 4: It should be easier to fire bad teachers. Tenure is a problem.

Claim 5: Schools need to teach more technology.

Claim 6: Teachers should be paid for results.

Claim 7: We need more charter schools.

Claim 8: We’re falling behind the rest of the world.

Claim 9: Teacher preparation is a sham.

Claim 10: Teachers only work nine months a year.

Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

References

Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/

Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) fernandadepaulag@aol.com [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/

Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/

Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle

Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Obama Education Agenda and the Tone-Deaf Follies

Early and often, the Obama administration’s education agenda, headed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has driven the public narrative about public schools, teachers, and students with a relentless claim that everything wrong with education rests in a single problem: Expectations are too low.

Impoverished children have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations!

African American and Latino/a students have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations!

Special needs students have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations!

And to put all of these demonstrably untrue and essentially nasty claims into context, we have this:

The U.S. Department of Education early Wednesday morning apologized for a tweet that some people found offensive because it appeared to mock low-income students.

On Tuesday evening, the Twitter account for the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid sent out a message that said: “If this is you, then you better fill out your FAFSA.”

It included a photo of a woman frowning with the caption, “Help me. I’m poor.”

The photo depicts a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids” [1] in which Kristen Wiig’s character is intoxicated and protesting a flight attendant’s decision to kick her out of the first-class cabin.

The common thread among all of these is that the USDOE under the Obama administration is inexcusably incompetent and embarrassingly tone-deaf.

The only place, in fact, that I see where low expectations are the main sources of failure is the USDOE itself, specifically with the appointment of Duncan.

The demonizing of public education and teachers is a distraction—an unfair and ugly one at that—and complicit in that ugliness is the mainstream media.

Smirking, privileged arrogance is not the sort of quality we need leading the education agenda in the U.S., but that is what we have—and that is the reason sophomoric tweets are posted by smirking, privileged, and arrogant appointees who cannot fathom being born into poverty or into a minority race, cannot fathom being a special needs students, and certainly cannot fathom the weight of recognizing you cannot afford a college degree or the crushing weight of student loan debt.

The tone-deaf tweet itself is just inexcusable, but it isn’t an isolated case of “insensitivity” or momentary lapse of reason. That tone-deaf tweet is a direct representation of the condescending attitude of our USDOE, a collection of appointees under Obama that lacks the experience, the expertise, and the basic human dignity to lead the needed reforms facing U.S. public schools.

Once the brief flurry of outrage over the tweet passes, we must admit that the Obama education agenda will remain as one the greatest failures of the hope and change that Obama promised.

[1] And while the USDOE seems to have thought, momentarily, that Bridesmaids was an appropriate cultural reference for their tone-deaf world view, I think it is more likely that the USDOE has mistaken Animal House for a documentary (and understandably so since it is more credible than Waiting for “Superman.”)

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