Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Education: The Invisible Profession

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers and well as theorists and philosophers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

In LaBrant’s unpublished memoir (written during the Reagan administration), she also catalogued living and teaching through three back-to-basic movements, highlighting the bulk of a century of digging the same standards-based reform hole that has never once been shown to work.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

For example, Regie Routman  and Stephen Krashen documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman confronted the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

Krashen presented a a detailed, evidence-based unmasking of the Plummet Legend:

The Great Plummet of 1987-1992 never happened. California’s reading scores were low well before the Language Arts Framework Committee met in 1987. There is compelling evidence that the low scores are related California’s impoverished print environment. There is also strong and consistent evidence that the availability of reading material is related to how much children read, and how much children read is related to how well they read. The skills and testing hysteria that has gripped California and other states was unnecessary.

Perpetuating a similar pattern to the whole language Plummet Legend, the current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CC, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and evaluation/merit pay policies.Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few different paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education


Krashen, S. (2002, June). Whole language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An urban legend from California. Phi Delta Kappan, 748-753.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

CAUTION: Technology!

In the myriad debates surrounding implementation of Common Core and the concurrent tests, the sheer costs of this process tends to be ignored. Another issue related to both CC and the related costs is yet another series of commitments to technology as a part of the perpetual education reform process. Here is a reposting of a presentation [see Note below] I gave offering a stern caution about our repeated rush to embrace technology:

Author Kurt Vonnegut quipped, “Novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” As with novels, so with schools, I believe, but we must take one step beyond “whether schools should address technology” to “how.”

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau offered two warnings that should guide how we approach technology: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,” and, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

It’s a Book, Lane Smith [VIDEO]

Shifting from seeking technology for technology’s sake to critical technological awareness

  • Caution: Inflated costs (market forces) in state-of-the-art technology
  • Caution: Pursuing state-of-the-art technology is self-defeating since “state-of-the-art” is a moving target; teaching students to use state-of-the-art technology fails to recognize that it will be “old” technology once students leave school. Also, state-of-the-art technology has a high risk/reward factor since many “new” gadgets fail and many “new” upgrades fizzle. Consider the storage facilities at schools filled with cables, software, out-dated hardware, and the LaserDisk players that never caught on.
  • Caution: New technology has inflated costs AND embedded costs related to repair and upgrades.
  • Caution: Adding new technology or upgrading existing technology requires added time spent for teachers (in-service) and students to learn the technology itself, draining time better served on teaching and learning themselves.
  • Caution: Research base, although sparse, does not support a positive role for technology in improving teaching/learning, and evidence we have shows teachers rarely use technology provided (EdWeek synthesis of research on technology):

That study found that most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.

From “Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?” (Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2012):

Almost every generation has been subjected in its formative years to some “groundbreaking” pedagogical technology. In the ’60s and ’70s, “instructional TV was going to revolutionize everything,” recalls Thomas C. Reeves, an instructional technology expert at the University of Georgia. “But the notion that a good teacher would be just as effective on videotape is not the case.”

Many would-be educational innovators treat technology as an end-all and be-all, making no effort to figure out how to integrate it into the classroom. “Computers, in and of themselves, do very little to aid learning,” Gavriel Salomon of the University of Haifa and David Perkins of Harvard observed in 1996. Placing them in the classroom “does not automatically inspire teachers to rethink their teaching or students to adopt new modes of learning.”

…In 2009, the Education Department released a study of whether math and reading software helped student achievement in first, fourth, and sixth grades, based on testing in hundreds of classrooms. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was “not statistically different from zero.“In sixth-grade math, students who used software got lower test scores — and the effect got significantly worse in the second year of use.

  • CautionSeeking to close GAPS (equity, achievement, technology) found in the lives of children (children in poverty, disadvantaged; children in affluence, privileged) through education presents a paradox: As Walt Gardner has succinctly explained: “Don’t forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.”
  • Caution: Begin with educational (teaching/learning) NEEDS, not the allure of new technology.


Thomas, P. L. (2012, January 3). A misguided use of money. Room for Debate. The New York Times.

—–. (2011, December 2). No. At Issue in CQ Researcher, p. 1017. and

NOTE: This originally was a presentation, as below:

CEFPI/SC Annual Conference

March 8-9, 2012


CAUTION!: Technology

P. L. Thomas, EdD

Associate Professor of Education

Furman University


Larry Cuban, Answering the Big Question on New Technology in Schools: Does It Work? (Part 1) 

See related: Technology In Education: An Answer In Search Of A Problem?

Closing Gaps?: Addressing Privilege and Poverty

With the release of her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch continues to identify the failures of education reform, exemplified by the charter school movement.

As the evidence mounts discrediting much of the movement, and more of the public discourse recognizes that evidence, we may be poised for rethinking education reform.

If current reform commitments are misguided, then what are our alternatives? Broadly, new ways of thinking about public education must occur before the U.S. can fulfill its obligation to the promise of universal public schools:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words, achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

One aspect of these new ways of thinking about public education that is rarely discussed is that seeking laudable goals (such as closing the achievement gap in schools and the income and upward mobility gaps in society) requires that we address both privilege and poverty—the top and the bottom. Historically and currently, our gaze remains almost exclusively on the bottom.

Richard Reeves in the “The Glass-Floor Problem” poses a provocative and necessary admission about the polar ends of class in the U.S.:

When it comes to the economic malaise facing America, the biggest problem is not the widening gap between rich and poor, but the stagnation of social mobility. When the income gap of one generation becomes an opportunity gap for the next, inequality hardens into social stratification….

These solutions may sound easy, but they are not. While politicians discuss social mobility as a pain-free goal, the unspoken, uncomfortable truth is that relative mobility is a zero-sum game. Opening more doors to applicants from low-income backgrounds often means closing more doors to affluent applicants.

This is delicate territory. Nobody wants parents to stop trying hard for their children. But nor do we want a society in which the social market is rigged in favor of those born into affluence. If we want a competitive economy and an open society, we need the best and brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.

In other words, the declining social mobility in the U.S. includes not only that those at the bottom are victims of poverty being destiny, but also that those at the top are reaping the benefit of privilege being destiny. In both extremes, then, the ideal of a U.S. meritocracy is negated.

Beneath simplistic claims that higher educational attainment (effort) is rewarded with greater income potential lie the ugly truth that poverty blocks children from high-quality educational opportunities while privilege insures better schools, advanced degrees, and access to jobs linked to the networking of privilege.

The lives of adults in the U.S. are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege—and not by the character or tenacity of any individual.

That fact is the basis for the needed new ways of thinking about education posed above.

One example of thinking differently about education is Ravitch, who explains that school-only reform over the past three decades is essentially a “mistake”; instead, social reform must come first so that school reform can work:

And income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.

We should do what works to strengthen our schools: Provide universal early childhood education (the U.S. ranks 24th among 45 nations, according to the Economist); make sure poor women get good prenatal care so their babies are healthy (we are 131st among 185 nations surveyed, according to the March of Dimes and the United Nations); reduce class size (to fewer than 20 students) in schools where students are struggling; insist that all schools have an excellent curriculum that includes the arts and daily physical education, as well as history, civics, science, mathematics and foreign languages; ensure that the schools attended by poor children have guidance counselors, libraries and librarians, social workers, psychologists, after-school programs and summer programs.

Schools should abandon the use of annual standardized tests; we are the only nation that spends billions testing every child every year. We need high standards for those who enter teaching, and we need to trust them as professionals and let them teach and write their own tests to determine what their students have learned and what extra help they need.

Annie Murphy Paul also challenges the in-school only focus on seeking ways to close gaps, shifting away from schools and into the home:

When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.

While Paul’s challenge pulls us one step back from school-only reform, this doesn’t go quite far enough (and stumbles if her argument is interpreted as “blame the parents”)—especially in the last comment quoted above. From Paul’s argument, we must ask ourselves why affluent parents and impoverished parents appear to parent differently.

“Laissez-faire” is a dangerous and potentially ugly word here.

Impoverished adults are not in poverty primarily due to laziness. Impoverished children do not score poorly on standardized tests because their parents do not care about school or are too lazy to parent properly (read: as affluent parents do).

Poverty is a social dynamic that does not allow people to behave in ways that we view as effective or productive. Privilege is a social dynamic that allows people to behave in ways that we mistakenly suggest is grounded in those people’s superior character.

Just as the achievement gap in schools is a marker for the equity gap in society, parenting style differences are reflections of the social dynamics experienced by those parents.

An affluent family with one parent staying home to support the children is allowed to behave in ways that an impoverished single parent working two part-time jobs (with no retirement or healthcare) cannot.

Privilege is a safety net, poverty is a prison.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge both privilege and poverty if we genuinely wish to close gaps in society and schools. Just as Reeves warns, however, recognizing that both privilege and poverty are unfair calls into question the advantages of children born into affluence.

It seems important that we ask as a culture some foundational questions:

  • Is ending the momentum of privilege “taking something away” from a child?
  • Is ending the momentum of poverty “giving something for free” to a child?
  • What are the foundational promises a country must make to insure the human dignity all people deserve, and expressed in that country’s foundational documents (in the U.S., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)?

These questions can only be answered and then acted upon if we make one additional change to how we think—in the larger scale (not in the schools, not in the home, but in society), how we think about the relationship between the Commons (publicly-funded institutions) and the free market.

The free market, we must admit, is amoral; the free market is Social Darwinism: competition produces losers and winners, not equity.

The Commons are potentially the collective ethics of a people.

And finally, then, in order for a free market to work for the common good, the Commons must be primary in the commitment of any people.

The Commons are the foundation upon which the market can do good.

As long as the U.S. views the Commons and the Market as an either/or proposition, and as long as the U.S. prefers the Market, privilege and poverty will continue to be destiny for our children. And for us all.

Let’s go back now to the second new way of viewing public schools from the beginning—reframed within a primary commitment to the Commons:

  • Public education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change as long as social inequity remains and as long as those public schools perpetuate those social inequities.

If we commit to social reform and education reform seeking equity and opportunity, then my first claim at the beginning will be proven wrong.

Here’s to my being wrong.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data:

The Rise of the Dogmatic Scholar: “A Cult of Ignorance” pt. 2

By oft repeating an untruth, men come to believe it themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Melish, Jan. 13, 1812

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1787


My university sits in the socially and politically conservative South, and our students tend toward a conservative political and world view as well. The most powerful student organizations are self-identified as conservative as well as being awash in power and funding, some from outside the university.

One conservative student organization, supported and funded by a network of such organizations spreading throughout campuses across the U.S., has for years dominated the Cultural Life Program of the university, a series of events students must attend as part of graduation requirements.

Several years ago, this organization brought Ann Coulter to campus, and when I mentioned my own concerns about her credibility during class, a student quickly defended Coulter by saying, “But she has footnotes in her book.”

Coulter’s confrontational conservatism speaks to the world views of many of our students and the greater public of SC, and thus seems credible even without footnotes. That student’s defense highlights a key element in the rise of the dogmatic scholar that has its roots in the 1980s, a period identified by Isaac Asimov as “a cult of ignorance” guided by a new ethic, “Don’t trust the experts.”

April of 2013 is the thirty-year anniversary of A Nation at Risk, a political and popular turning point for America’s perception of not only public education but also education reform as well as the discourse surrounding both. John Holton (2003) and Gerald Bracey (2003) have since then detailed that the report was also, in Bracey’s words a decade ago on the cusp of No Child Left Behind, “false”:

It has been 20 years, though, since A Nation at Risk appeared. It is clear that it was false then and is false now. Today, the laments are old and tired – and still false. “Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars” trumpeted the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ho hum. The various special interest groups in education need an other treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It’s called No Child Left Behind. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.

What was “false” about A Nation at Risk?

First, Holton, as an insider, exposed that Ronald Reagan himself directed the commission to insure his agenda for public schools:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don’t ask to waste more federal money on education – “we have put in more only to wind up with less.” Just discover excellent schools to serve as models for all the others. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned.

Second, Bracey noted that despite the report depending on research and data, only one trend line out of nine suggested anything negative—and that the commission focused on that one trend line in order to comply with the political pressure aimed at the committee.

And third, A Nation at Risk as a political document parading as scholarship received not only a pass from the media but also a rush to benefit from the bad news by many stakeholders, as Bracey explained:

Alas, nothing else is new and, indeed, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one’s reform agenda – even if it does make teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel a little better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists want to teach religion and not worry about the First Amendment; Catholic schools want to stanch their student hemorrhage; home schooling advocates want just that; and various groups no doubt just want to be with “their own kind.” All groups believe that they will improve their chances of getting what they want if they pummel the publics.

A Nation at Risk, the process involved to create the report, the uncritical media endorsement of the report, and the public and academic embracing of the claims represent a seminal moment in the rise of the dogmatic scholar, one foreshadowed by Asimov and personified by Coulter.

Recently, a debate between Diane Ravitch and Patrick Wolf highlights how the dogmatic scholar looks today. Mercedes Schneider examines that debate by first addressing Wolf’s credentials, Endowed Chair in School Choice, Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

Both Schneider and Ravitch raise concerns about the conflict of interests when a scholar holds a chair in a department that is heavily funded by school choice advocates, as Schneider explains about Wolf’s complaint that Ravitch attacked him personally:

Whereas she does not personally attack Wolf, Ravich certainly clearly exposes Wolf’s conflict of interest in evaluating a program obviously supported by his funders.

I agree with Ravitch that this conflict of interest is noteworthy for its undeniable potential in “shaping” study reporting and outcomes.

At the root of this debate is the unmasking of the dogmatic scholar and the concurrent rise of conservative advocacy taking on the appearance of scholarship despite the historical claims among conservatives that pointy-headed intellectuals shouldn’t be trusted (again, read Asimov).

Coulter’s book has footnotes to appear scholarly, and free market think tanks have increasingly embraced a formula that is both deeply deceiving and powerfully effective: (1) Hire fellows with advanced degrees, preferably PhDs, (2) generate reports that include a great deal of data, statistics, and charts/graphs, (3) create scholarly but attractive PDFs of the reports accessible for free through the think tank web sites, (4) aggressively promote the reports through press releases, and (5) circumvent entirely the peer-review process (in fact, conservative think tanks are actively demonizing the peer-review process).

The dogmatic scholar differs from the traditional university-based scholar in a few important ways. The university-based scholar and the promise of academia rest on some basic concepts, including the wall between undue influence and independent thought that tenure affords combined with the self-policing effect of peer-review.

While traditional scholarship, tenure, and peer-review are not without problems, this essential paradigm does allow for (although it cannot guarantee) rich and vibrant knowledge bases to evolve for the sake of knowledge absent the allure of profit or the influence of inexpert authority (tenure stands between university boards of trustees and faculty to insure academic freedom, for example).

As a critical educator and scholar, however, I do reject the traditional view that scholars must be apolitical, must assume some objective stance. In fact, I believe that scholars must be activists.

Therefore, my concern about the rise of the dogmatic scholar is not the activism or advocacy but two key failures found among dogmatic scholarship: (1) masking advocacy as objective (typically behind the use of statistics and charts/graphs), and (2) committing to an ideology despite the weight of evidence to the contrary.

Activist scholars such as Howard Zinn represent the power of taking a public intellectual stance that is both ideologically grounded (social justice) and informed by scholarship, Zinn’s own careful and detailed work as a historian.

Dogmatic scholarship typically found in think tanks but increasingly occurring in externally funded schools, departments, and institutes within universities and colleges (such as Wolf’s role at the University of Arkansas) is represented by a school choice report funded by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which is explicitly a free market advocacy think tank.

Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform, by David Dodenhoff, PhD, was released by WPRI in 2007 with George Lightbourn, representing the institute, lamenting: “The report you are reading did not yield the results I had hoped for.”

Further, despite the evidence of the research commissioned by WPRI, Lightbourn issued a commentary and explained:

So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice.  School choice is working and should be improved and expanded.  School choice is good for Milwaukee’s children.

While Lightbourn’s commentary raises some concerns about the data, the key message is “evidence be damned, WPRI remains committed to school choice!”

The problem, then, with the rise of the dogmatic scholar is that several contradictions lie underneath the movement.

Conservative America has persistently marginalized and demonized the Left as biased while embracing not only the possibility of objectivity but also the necessity for objectivity, especially among educators, scholars, and researchers (consider the uproar over climate change science).

Yet, conservatives are the base of dogmatic scholars and those who embrace dogmatic scholars (or popular versions such as Coulter)—despite dogmatic scholars being themselves advocates masquerading as objective and academic.

Further, the dogmatic scholar is failing in the exact ways some traditional scholarship fails—allowing the influence of funding and profit to skew the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, since dogmatic scholarship is often driven by market ideology, the influence of funding and profit is common.

The impact of dogmatic scholarship on education reform has been staggering, resulting in a common pattern found among researchers and think tanks committed to reviewing educational research such as Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo, and the National Education Policy Center: The reports coming from dogmatic scholars produce impressive data sets but misleading, incomplete, or contradictory claims and recommendations (see, for example, Baker on the highly publicized Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff study).

The reports coming from dogmatic scholars, notably the school choice research, tends to replicate the comments coming from WPRI about Milwaukee school choice: The claims and recommendations are decided before and in spite of the evidence of the data.

In fact, school choice research has revealed a pattern of making a series of ever-changing claims simply to keep the debate alive and thus the choice agenda vibrant. In the popular and enduring evolution debate, for example, Intelligent Design as a faux science endorses “teach the debate” to lend credibility to their claims and to gain equal footing with the scientific process without actually conforming to that process.

Do Ravitch and Wolf, then, have the right to debate? Of course. Their debate is likely a potentially powerful mechanism for examining education reform.

Does Wolf have a right to advocate for school choice? Again, I believe he does.

The problem, however, with both Wolf’s agenda and the debate is that Wolf wants to hide behind a mask of objectivity and has taken a “holier than thou” stance to marginalize Ravitch’s credible concerns about school choice research.

In the end, the dogmatic scholar fails for the same reason dogma does—because neither can be questioned.

All credible scholarship is rendered more valuable by the light of questions so I will end with a simple solution offered by Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D. at Wolf’s complaint:

Dr. Patrick, Please hurry and de-identify the data you used in your papers and provide it to independent researchers. I have the ability to critique the methodological rigor and quality of your actual research. I am very very much looking forward to it.

Among researchers, no claim is any more credible than the data the claim rests on. As long as dogmatic scholars ignore the data and hide the data, their work will be questioned in ways that also include their motives.

The job of the scholar is not to be objective, but to be transparent—admitting evidence-based stances providing context for claims and recommendations. Dogmatic scholars refuse to be transparent, and their weakness is that entrenched dishonesty.

In short, all scholars likely should heed the opening comments from Jefferson.


Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

A half century seems to be a significant amount of time for change, but Minnijean Brown Trickey’s visit to Little Rock Central High School fifty years after the federal government had to monitor her and eight other African American students entering public school shows that much more time is needed. Felicia Lee captured Trickey’s experience, documented in the HBO film Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later:

“On a recent visit to Central High, Ms. Trickey spoke to a self-segregated classroom: whites on one side, blacks on the other. An African-American student apparently dozed as she spoke. Students and teachers alike spoke blithely or painfully of the low educational aspirations and achievements of too many black students. Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high achieving, affluent white minority.”

Public schools in the U.S., like Little Rock Central, are a snapshot of racial and economic inequity. While the landmark Brown v. the Board of Educationin 1954 ended de jure segregation, the South struggled with school integration well into the 1970s.

Yet, Little Rock Central is not unique to the lingering racial and economic inequities found in schools—including children of color, children from poverty, ELL, and special needs students being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers, receiving highly scripted test-prep instruction, and enduring authoritarian “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Children of color and children from poverty also experience the within-school segregation highlighted by Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later: White and affluent students dominate selective tracks of classes (such as Advanced Placement), and white and African American students self-segregate in class, the lunchroom, and social settings.

Many of these issues of social and educational inequity receive some political and public consideration, but one aspect of inequity remains ignored: The rise of de facto educational segregation, notably in the South.

The Re-segregated South

Race has historically been central to both how the South is defined as well as the social tensions of the region. In a 2012 report for The Civil Rights Project, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg note that the twenty-first century has revealed a South in which “black and Latino students account for about half of the region’s students, while whites constitute a minority.”

According to data drawn from a larger report, E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students, the racial dynamics of the South include two powerful elements, as Siegel-Hawley and Frankenberg, focusing on the South, detail:

• The South is a majority-minority region in terms of its school enrollment, second only to the West as the most diverse in the country. At more than 15 million students, the South has, by far, the largest enrollment of any region. Southern students make up almost a third of the national enrollment (32% of all students).

• Latino students account for nearly the same share (23.4%) of the region’s enrollment as black students (25.9%). At 46.9%, whites now constitute a minority of students in the South.

While the South has historically been an impoverished region of the U.S., the racial shifts experienced by the region amplify the problems already faced by public schools disproportionately burdened by the impact of poverty on student outcomes as well as fully funding education. Racial and economic factors are difficult to separate in the South, but the rise in populations of Latino students adds challenges associated with language acquisition to the systemic struggles fueled by racial tensions in the South.

During the most recent era of school accountability, begun in the early 1980s and intensified in 2001 with the implementation of No Child Behind (which specifically charged public schools with documenting and addressing racial gaps in achievement), however, achievement gaps and drop-out rates, for example, remain seemingly entrenched in public education. One other reality of the last three to four decades is that schools are re-segregating:

• Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90-100% minority students). This represents a significant setback. Though for decades Southern black students were more integrated than their peers in other parts of the country, by 2009-10 the share of Southern black students enrolled in intensely segregated minority schools (33.4%) was fast closing in on the national figure (38.1%). By comparison, in 1980, just 23% of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools.

• For the last four decades, contact between black and white students has declined in virtually all Southern states. In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.

• Most of the largest Southern metro areas also report declining black-white exposure. The Raleigh, NC metro had the highest black-white contact although this too has fallen in recent years. In 2009, the typical black student in the metro went to a school where whites accounted for about 45% of their peers, compared to about 54% in 2002).

• In 2009, black-white exposure in the metropolitan area of Raleigh was relatively similar to the overall white percentage in the metro (54%)–indicating fairly stable levels of desegregation. Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district’s voluntary integration policy.

• Two metros, Memphis, TN and Miami, FL, had the lowest exposure of black students to white students in 2009, under 15%.

The South is no longer a racial dichotomy between black and white; Latino students now share the inequities found among African Americans:

• The share of Latino students attending intensely segregated minority schools has increased steadily over the past four decades from 33.7% in 1968 to 43.1% in 2009; presently more than two out of five Latino students in the South attend intensely segregated settings.

•At the metropolitan level, Latino-white exposure is higher than black-white exposure across many major Southern metro areas. This is particularly true in Southern metros outside of Texas (where, in general, the lowest exposure between Latino and white students occurred).

• For example, Atlanta has a growing Latino student population, now comprising 13% of all students. As their share of enrollment has grown, Latino exposure to whites has fallen substantially—by nearly ten percentage points since 2002. Yet, Latino students in the Atlanta area still have higher exposure to white students (29.8%) than their black peers (20.3%).

• In ten Southern metros, the typical Latino attends a school where at least 40% of students are white. By comparison, only in the Raleigh metro did black students experience similarly high levels of exposure to white students.

Among black, white, and Latino students, social and educational inequity defines access to education (schools remain reflections of racially and economically stratified communities):

• Black students experience the highest levels of exposure to poverty in nearly every Southern state. (This is different from the rest of the U.S., where Latino students experience higher average exposure to poverty.)

• Virginia, with the lowest share of student poverty in the South, also reports the lowest black exposure to poor students. Even then, almost 50% of students in the school of the typical black student in Virginia are low-income, considerably higher than the state’s share of low-income students (36.8%).

• Stark differences in exposure to poverty for white students, as compared to black and Latino students, exist in virtually every Southern and Border metropolitan area.

• In three Border metros, the typical white student attended a school with less than 30% poor students, and the typical black student attended a school with more than 60% of students from households at or near the poverty line.

The re-segregation of the South should raise essential questions about education reform: How are current reform policies addressing racial and economic inequity? And how are those reforms impacting re-segregation?

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

The current education reform era remains committed to seeking new standards (currently a push for national standards, the Common Core), aligning tests to those standards and then linking those test scores to teacher evaluations, expanding commitments to charter schools, and infusing the teaching core with inexperienced and uncertified Teach for America recruits.

While the education reform movement has ignored that test-based accountability has failed to raise student outcomes, close achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, or boost international comparisons of U.S. schools, the test-based and “no excuses” reform paradigm proves to be even a greater failure when measured against goals committed to equity, as the reports from The Civil Rights Project highlight.

Changing standards ignores that children in poverty and children of color tend to experience test-prep courses regardless of the standards, and thus receive a reduced educational experience when compared to middle-class and affluent (and disproportionately white) students. If education reform were committed to equity, public schools would insure that all students, regardless of race or socio-economic status, would receive rich and engaging educations.

Increasing the amount of testing and the stakes associated with that testing (for both students and teachers) ignores that standardized testing remains more closely linked with the child’s home status than with the child’s learning or their teachers’ effectiveness. If education reform were committed to equity, high-stakes standardized testing and using test scores to label and rank students and teachers would be completely eliminated. Test-driven education stratifies students by race and socio-economic status, discourages teachers from seeking opportunities to work with high-needs students, and misrepresents school quality (see the historical failure of relying on the SAT, for example.)

Charter schools are not producing outcomes superior to public (or private) schools, but charter schools (such as KIPP) are stratifying (re-segregating) schools and focusing education for children of color and children from poverty more on authoritarian discipline policies and test-prep than rich experiences being experienced by their more affluent (and white) peers. If education reform were committed to equity, children of color and children from poverty would be provided public education that mirrors the education being experienced by affluent whites; instead, charter schools are segregated and “no excuses” environments designed for “other people’s children.”

Funding and expanding TFA candidates in high-poverty and high-minority schools ignores that the single greatest inequity experienced by children of color and children from poverty is being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would abandon test-based teacher evaluations as well as supporting TFA, and instead would insure equity of teacher assignment for all students while also acknowledging the importance of experience and expertise for teachers.

Focusing on school-only reform (the tenet of “no excuses” school reform) ignores the corrosive power of poverty. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would be supported by social reform that acknowledges recent findings on the stress of poverty and child cognition: “These results suggest that prenatal stress may play a role in the intergenerational persistence of poverty.” Poverty is the result of inequity, and schools too often reflect that inequity and thus cannot then raise students out of that poverty.

The bi-partisan test-based accountability movement, driven by a “no excuses” ideology, is deaf and blind to the social and educational inequity of their policies.

Little Rock Central, half a century after segregation was declared over, remains a haunting legacy of how much further society and U.S. schools need to go:

“Central is still pretty segregated,” Brandon Love, the affluent student body president who is the only black person in his Advanced Placement classes, says in the film. “It is just that we do not have to have the National Guard here to get in the school and to go to school.”

The South is currently a bitter pill to swallow in the war on inequity. The South, again, is also a stark message for the entire country: Inequity stains the lives and learning of American children.

The commitments of education reform are perpetuating those inequities, not overcoming them. The segregated South has risen again, and education reform deserves a significant part of the blame.

Recommended Reading for Educators Trapped in the Machine

from World War Z, Max Brooks

“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say, ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was just following orders.’” (p. 83)

from Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

“[I]t is nothing short of disastrous that more than ever before, one antidemocratic system of ideas—market ideology—almost exclusively defines the terms of educational politics and charts the path of education reform

“…[I]deology is important in understanding educational change….Ideology is nonetheless often overlooked or at best misapplied by mainstream social scientists as a factor in politics. This is due in part to the dominance of quantitative methodologies in political science, which leads to the trivialization of the concept into conveniently measurable but irrelevant labels….Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage.” (pp. 3, 8-9)

from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

“For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

“The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened.” (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)

Educators: “[N]ot the Time. . .to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”

In a major journal from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a teacher and scholar laments the current state of implementing the research in language: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87). [1]

And the discussion of that gap between research and classroom practices leads to this conclusion:

“Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium [emphasis added]. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources and study the answers thoughtfully. The game of Gossip is not for us.” (p. 94)

While those of us living our lives as teachers, especially teachers of literacy in K-12 settings or in teacher education, may recognize many points above in our current debates about education reform—including some of the debates that simmer below the surface of the workings of NCTE—this piece is by Lou LaBrant and was published in the January 1947 issue of Elementary English (now Language Arts).

More than six decades after LaBrant wrote about the gap between research and practice, More than six decades after she implores us that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance,” educators across the U.S. are faced with the failure of leaders, the public, and professional organizations in the face of the promise of universal public education and its potential to drive the great hope we call democracy.

The Locus of Authority: Our Time for Resistance

At the 100th anniversary annual convention for NCTE in Chicago (November 2011), I presented during a panel on the Council’s century of leadership in the field of literacy—reading from the essay above by LaBrant and suggesting how she would have responded to the current calls for Common Core State Standards (CCSS), increased testing, intensified value-added methods (VAM) for teacher accountability linked to those tests, and accelerating mandates driving teacher preparation and accreditation of colleges and departments of education.

I know from my work as the biographer of LaBrant that she was a powerful voice for the professionalism, scholarship, and teacher autonomy—including herself and every teacher with whom she interacted. LaBrant, in fact, during the early 1930s when enrolled in her doctoral program at Northwestern University, faced pressure while teaching English to implement required reading lists, textbooks, and benchmark testing, all of which she knew to be flawed practices.

What did LaBrant do?

She fabricated lesson plans with her roommate, the foreign language teacher, and submitted them each week while practicing the pedagogy she embraced—student choice in what they read and wrote, holistic instruction and assessment of literacy. At the end of the year, LaBrant and her students (yes, in the early 1930s) faced end-of-course testing, and LaBrant’s students received top scores. Consequently, she was praised by the principal in front of the entire faculty for her dedication to the prescribed policies.

This tension between bureaucratic mandates that seek to shift the locus of authority (consider Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”) away from the teacher and within the standards and tests designed and prescribed by the state is not entirely new (except for the intensity), but neither is the need for teachers to own their autonomy, their professionalism—to be that resistance.

Also at the 2011 NCTE annual convention, a convention of celebration, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, Carol Mikoda, Bess Altwerger, Joanne Yatvin, and Richard J. Meyer proposed a resolution: NCTE will oppose common core standards and national tests. [2] This act of resistance, this act of teacher autonomy and professionalism resulted in what Catherine Gewertz in the Curriculum Matters blog at Education Week describes as: “The National Council of Teachers of English was asked by a group of its members to take a strong stand against the common standards, but it declined to do so.”

This is a time when political leaders, the public, and national organizations have abdicated their moral obligation to create and maintain universal public education for all children as a sacred trust between a free people and the promise of democracy.

As the faculty of Garfield High School (Seattle, WA) take a principled stand against MAP testing as a beacon of hope in the fog of corporate education reform, this is also a time for all educators to shine every light of our autonomy on what is right and what is wrong in the day-to-day pursuit of teaching children.

“This is not the time for the teacher of any [student] to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”


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

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

[1] Originally posted at Daily Kos (November 21, 2011) and cross-posted at Truthout (November 28, 2011). Reposting here as a call for solidarity among educators inspired by the resistance of Garfield High School faculty (Seattle, WA) to the corrosive impact of MAP and other elements of high-stakes testing in U.S. education. The original piece has been revised.

[2] Revised resolution passed: Resolution Proposal to Support: No Confidence in United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Charter Schools: A Primer

Stakeholders in education include virtually everyone in a democracy—students, parents, teachers, politicians, business leaders, the media, and more.

Historically, public education in the U.S. has experienced two continual popular narratives: (1) public schools are failing, and (2) [insert reform here] is needed to overhaul schools for (a) international competitiveness and (b) a stronger workforce.

Recently, charter schools have seen a significant rise in advocacy and implementation as a complex mechanism for reform. Along with that rise has come a new wave of research on the effectiveness of those charter schools, particularly as they compare with traditional public schools (TPS).

Most stakeholders in education receive their information about charter schools from the media; thus, when the media covers the charter school debate and research, the influence of those media accounts can be disproportional to the quality.

For example, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken a strong position for charter schools in SC: “But there is one area where the state has taken bold steps to improve education: charter schools.” However, an analysis of charter schools in SC that compares state report card data between those charter schools and  TPS using the state metric of “Schools with Students Like Ours” revealed in 2012:

Charter schools in SC have produced outcomes below and occasionally typical of outcomes of public schools; thus, claims of exceptional outcomes for charter schools in SC are unsupported by the data (3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical).

Since the pattern of advocacy and implementation of charter schools includes a significant amount of support from political leaders, business leaders, the media, and advocates (such as charter-based organizations and think tanks), most stakeholders need a clear and accurate primer addressing what we currently know about charter school effectiveness, and that must be guided by this caution from Matthew Di Carlo:

There’s a constant barrage of data, reports and papers flying around, and sifting through it with a quality filter, as well as synthesizing large bodies of usually mixed evidence into policy conclusions, are massive challenges. Moreover, we all bring our pre-existing beliefs, as well as other differences, to the table. There are no easy solutions here.

But, one useful first step, at least in education, would be to stop pointing fingers and acknowledge two things. First, neither ‘side’ has anything resembling a monopoly on the misuse of evidence. And, second, such misuse has zero power if enough people can identify it as such.

One overarching point needs to be made about the charter school debate first. Charter advocacy and criticism both too often fail in their use of data, as Di Carlo warns, but both also make another mistake, ignoring the evidence base entirely.

What, then, is the current state of evidence on charter school effectiveness? [1] And, how do charter schools address, or not, clearly identified problems and goals of TPS—including what questions and concerns remain in the context of what the evidence suggests about charter school effectiveness?

• Research has repeatedly shown that measurable outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, college admissions rates, etc.) from charter schools produce about the same range of quality as TPS (and private schools) and that the type of school structure (charter v. TPS) appears not to be a determining factor in the outcomes with the demographics of the students and the community remaining powerful correlations with those outcomes.

• Claims of “miracle” schools fail to stand up under close scrutiny, but even if outliers exist in charter schools, outliers exist in TPS and private schools as well, and thus, outliers may prove to be ineffective models for scaling any success.

• Charter schools do not appear to address and often seem to mirror or increase key problems with TPS: (a) teacher assignment (high-needs students assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers), (b) class and racial segregation, (c) selectivity and attrition of students, (d) teacher turnover and retention ["churn"], (e) concerns about excluding the most difficult sub-categories of high-needs students [English language learners, special needs students, highest-poverty students, students from home that cannot or will not pursue choices].

• Charter school student outcomes are often complicated by issues of selectivity, attrition, and scalability.

• Some charter school ideologies—notably “no excuses” policies—trigger concerns about classism and racism that are rarely weighed against data.

• Charter schools (along with school choice and home schooling) introduce problems concerning athletic participation as well as a wide range of extracurricular participation in TPS.

• Charter schools also complicate already stressed and controversial TPS funding policies and agendas.

The charter school debate seems to warrant a similar caution that many other reforms now deserve, including VAM-style teacher evaluation. As Di Carlo explains:

As discussed in a previous post, there is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about “charterness” that leads to strong results.

With commitments to charter schools, many policy makers are moving too quickly and failing to examine the evidence so far along with weighing that evidence against clearly defined problems with TPS and specifically identified goals for the reforms.


[1] A number of studies inform the list above. Readers are invited to examine a wide array of research and reports listed below, but also urged to search for new evidence:

Charter Schools Not the Answer, Especially if We Fail to Identify the Question, P. L. Thomas

Comparing Teacher Turnover In Charter And Regular Public Schools, Matthew Di Carlo

Charter Schools posts at The Shanker Blog

Search “charter schools” at NEPC

Charter Schools posts at School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker)

Charter Schools research at NCSPE

Search “charter schools” at EPAA