State Impact: Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Speaking for the Education Trust, Sonja Brookins Santelises makes the following argument in support of Common Core:

And before Baltimore, she worked in Massachusetts – the state whose standards are a model for Common Core. The Bay State is now one of the top-ranked education systems in the country.

Common standards will allow districts across the U.S. to share tips, techniques and lessons that work best for low-income or minority students.

In Twenty Years After Education Reform: Choosing a Path Forward to Equity and Excellence for All, Dan French, Ed.D., Lisa Guisbond and Alain Jehlen, Ph.D., with Norma Shapiro, conclude, among other things, about the impact of Massachusetts’ standards:

Large gaps in educational equity, opportunity and outcomes persist:

• On the MCAS, significant gaps remain among student groups based on race, poverty, ethnicity, language and special needs, with some gaps stagnant and some increasing. The school districts with the highest scores on the 2012 10th grade MCAS English test  had low-income student populations ranging from two to nine percent, while the ten lowest scoring districts had percentages ranging from 50 to 87 percent.

• On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though our average results place us at the top of all states, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between White and Hispanic students, a sign that the English immersion policy created by the Unz initiative has failed.

• Massachusetts ranks 31st of 49 states for the gap between Black and White student graduation rates (with 1st meaning that the gap is the smallest) and 39th of 47 states for the size of the gap between Hispanic and White student graduation rates. For students with disabilities, Massachusetts’ four-year graduation rate is only 64.9 percent, which ranks the state at 28th out of the 45 states with available data in 2009. A significant reason for this low figure is the impact of the MCAS graduation requirement on this subgroup.

Why Poverty and Mass Incarceration Do Not Matter in the U.S.

Ever wonder why poverty and mass incarceration do not matter in the U.S.?

Poverty disproportionately impacts women and children (see p. 15):

Povertygenderage

[click image to enlarge]

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African American males. While white males outnumber AA males about 5 to 1 in society, AA males outnumber white makes about 6 to 1 in prison:

—–

Government and business in the U.S. remains dominated either by privileged white males or the norms associated with privileged white males.

Our leaders have no empathy.

Our leaders have wealth, privilege, child care, health care, food security, and job security—and they all believe they have earned it all. They also believe those who haven’t are lazy—also deserving their poverty.

Our leaders cannot and will not acknowledge their privilege.

Leadership without empathy is tyranny.

If poverty and mass incarceration were white male problems, we’d be working to end both.

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Bi-partisan Failure: Misreading Education “Gaps”

It took about twenty years, and then another secondary ten years, but the hysterical and misleading A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration successfully kicked off three decades of public school accountability.

In the beginning, the hysteria revolved around several points that were factually inaccurate, but publicly effective: (1) U.S. public schools were failing, (2) U.S. students were weak, and possibly lazy, but their schools didn’t do much to challenge them, and (3) because of this cycle of lazy students in failing schools, U.S. international competitiveness was in dire straits.

These claims and the discourse grew from the White House and became recurrent and unquestioned talking points in the media, among the public, and by politicians. At first, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public education built state-based standards and testing cycles that targeted primarily students (best typified by the exit exams designed to hold students accountable and insure the value of the high school diploma) and then gradually the schools themselves with the rise of school report cards.

The initial twenty-year cycle of state-based school accountability also spawned governors as education reformers—most notably the fraudulent Texas Miracle during George W. Bush’s tenure in Texas that helped bolster his run for the White House. Bush as education governor became education president and brought Rod Paige along as Secretary of Education to convert the Texas Miracle into a federal version of the state-based accountability movement, now popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In 2012, two important aspects of NCLB are worth considering: (1) NCLB has been repeatedly praised as a bi-partisan effort, but we rarely consider that bi-partisanship by itself doesn’t insure quality (and in education, we have ample evidence bi-partisanship is evidence of failure), and (2) NCLB has also been credited for raising national awareness of the achievement gap, but this second point is evidence of why the bi-partisanship is proof of political failure about education reform.

Misreading Education “Gaps”

The single greatest bi-partisan success of NCLB, the argument has been, is that the federal government began forcing all schools to address the achievement gaps among subgroups of students, impacting significantly how schools identified, tested, and displayed test data related to English language learners, African American students, and special needs students.

Here, though, the use of the term “achievement gap” has never been challenged or examined for what agenda it fulfills or how it positions our entire national view of students, teachers, and schools.

Like the “no excuses” mantra “poverty is not destiny,” the use of “achievement gap” redirects the focus on the tests themselves, the students as agents of the test data, and the teachers as agents of the students as test takers. Again, just as the “no excuses” mantras accomplish, “achievement gap” creates a myopic view of agency—the rugged individual—that decontextualizes children from their lives outside of schools and students, teachers, and schools from the society and communities in which they exist.

The dynamic created by NCLB’s focus on the achievement gap (including federal funding to support addressing that gap) revealed to the public that such gaps exist—although anyone working in education or examining test data throughout the twentieth century knows that standardized scores have always been and remain most strongly correlated to the exact characteristics used to identify subgroups of students (language proficiency, parental income, parental education level, race, gender). By situating the accountability movement within schools and focusing the process on test scores, the public and political conclusions drawn from the identified achievement gap included that, once again, schools were failing, but resulted in a new claim that teachers were the primary cause of that failure.

The achievement gap, then, serves the interests of the “no excuses” reform movement that is determined to discount the influence of poverty on the lives of children and their learning—not the interests of these children or families trapped in the growing plight of poverty in the U.S., and not universal public education as a mechanism of democracy and human empowerment.

Instead of referring to and addressing the achievement gap, I have recommended focusing on the “equity gap”—a terminology that contextualizes where “achievement gap” decontextualizes.

Acknowledging and addressing the equity gap recognizes that student test data are markers for a complex matrix of conditions—not simply the effort or aptitude of students, not the quality or effort of their teachers.

Equally viable as an alternative to “achievement gap” is Charlotte Carter-Wall’s examination of the attainment gap in a new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)—The Role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap.

This report, building on previous studies by JRF (see the references provided by Carter-Wall), provides a key finding that challenges arguments that children and the families living in poverty embody attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that cause the poor test scores of those students. This is powerful since it runs counter to the rugged individualism assumptions underlying “no excuses” reforms.

The JRF study helps clarify Berliner’s research showing that out-of-school factors overwhelm in-school factors in terms of student outcomes. As well, Barton and Coley (20072009) have established similar evidence that couches the “achievement gap” in the broader social, community, and home characteristics that “no excuses” reformers and politicans tend to ignore or discount.

Linda Darling-Hammond has also challenged the validity of “no excuses” reform perpetuated by addressing the “achievement gap”:

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns….

These issues were vividly illustrated in last week’s Capitol Hill briefing on the impact of poverty on education and what we can do about it. Sponsored jointly by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the panel got beyond the increasingly implausible “no excuses” rhetoric, using new evidence to examine the relationship between income and educational outcomes — as well as about strategies that have succeeded in reducing this relationship.

NCLB must not be praised as a bi-partisan watershed moment when the U.S. exposed and confronted the achievement gap. Instead we must acknowledge that the term “achievement gap” works to mask and even ignore the corrosive influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children.

Our political and public discourse must turn to confronting and changing the equity gap, the attainment gap, and the income gap, since these all recognize the full context of both living and learning in either poverty or affluence.

But what of the most recent claims of teacher quality even if we move to these new terms and understandings?

Teacher Quality and the Attainment Gap

A Nation at Risk created and fueled a series of inaccurate claims about students and schools in the U.S., but one of the most powerful and misleading recent additions to those claims has been the assault on the “bad” teacher. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee—among many others—have stated and repeated that teachers are the most important factor in the learning of children. Again similar to responses to the achievement gap, claims about teachers have been primarily allowed without full or critical challenges in the media or the public. Briefly, then, consider these inaccurate and conflicting claims currently being posed about teacher quality as it impacts student learning:

• “No excuses” reformers make two conflicting claims: Teachers are the most important element in student learning, but bad teachers are the sole reason our schools have historically and currently failed students. These bizarre claims are compounded by another misunderstanding common in the public—that teachers can be to blame for school failure. Few political or public discussions of the role of teachers in school quality acknowledge that teachers have never and do not now run schools.

• “No excuses” reformers also call for the need to recruit the best and brightest into education while simultaneously dismantling academic freedom and due process for teachers as well as endorsing Common Core State Standards to prescribe what teachers will teacher, how they will teach that content, and that those teachers will be evaluated and fired based on tests and standards not designed or endorsed by those teachers. [Note that "no excuses" reformers depend on the achievement gap discourse decontextualizing test data from social causes in order to shift the burden of learning to the teachers.]

Reframing the achievement gap as the equity or attainment gap will be of little value unless we also reframe the discussion of teacher quality by placing that debate within the equity/attainment gap discussion. That shift must include the following:

• Teacher quality matters, but it (and school characteristics) correlates with only about 33% to as little as 14% of student outcomes. As Jim Horn explains:

So what can we do?  We can continue to improve our teaching in every way we can, even as we must begin to alter the ravaging effects of poverty and to advocate for policies that help to limit the effects the poverty.  Health care, nutrition, housing, transportation, jobs, and integrated and diverse schools that can take take advantage of the power of shared social capital.

• The “no excuses” reformers also make repeatedly another conflicting set of claims: schools are historical and current failures, but they are the mechanism by which we can change society (and that of course must be done by firing the “bad” teachers and hiring the best and brightest into what is increasing a service industry). Thus, the teacher quality debate must be framed in how it often perpetuates inequity of attainment for children since children of color, English language learners, and special needs students tend to be assigned disproportionately to new/inexperienced teachers as well as un-/under-qualified teachers—a dynamic increased by the rise of commitments to Teach for America.

If the achievement gap is a metric exposing problems the U.S. must confront, and it is, and if teacher quality matters, and it does, and if our schools are a mechanism for reforming society’s persistent scar of inequity, and they could be, the ways in which we talk about “gaps” must first be reformed so that we come to understand that living and learning in poverty is a reality of inequity for far too many children in the U.S., 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks of each year.

Recommended Further Reading

Diane Ravitch on Texas Miracle: The Texas Miracle Revisited and 20 years later, debunking the ‘Texas Miracle’

A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education

Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings

References

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2007, September). The family: America’s smallest school. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 27 December 2007, from http://www.ets.org/…

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2009). Parsing the achievement gap II. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 8 May 2009, fromhttp://www.ets.org/…

Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 25 August 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/…

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. Retrieved 27 December 2007 fromhttp://www.jrf.org.uk/…

Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F., & Stecher, B. M. (2000) What do test scores in Texas tell us? Issue Paper, Rand Education. Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation. Retrieved 20 August 2009 from http://www.rand.org/…

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.edtrust.org/…

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Why the Achievement Gap Matters and Will Remain

EdWeek features a story that is a typical crisis report on education in the U.S. that has been repeated for decades, although the current crisis has expanded beyond African American students to include Hispanic students: “Study Finds Gaps Remain Large for Hispanic Students”:

While growing numbers of Hispanic students have changed the face of American education over the past two decades, the gap between them and their white classmates in math and reading remains as wide as it was in the 1990s, according to a new federal study.

The hand wringing over the White/Hispanic achievement gap, however, exposes more about the failure of political, media, and public discourse as well as current and historic patterns of education reform than about our education system.

With a little care, we can unravel the inherent flaws in both our assumptions about the achievement gap and the misguided approaches to addressing it in our schools.

First, and this is the most important aspect of the topic, the achievement gap is primarily a reflection of the equity gap that exists in the lives of children, and only secondarily a reflection of school quality and practices.

This is central to any effective commitments to addressing inequity for children, but this fact exposes why the EdWeek headline is unlikely ever to be any different as long as we persist in addressing only in-school dynamics and focus on the narrowest forms of student outcomes, test scores.

While politicians and the media misrepresent the achievement gap in order to demonize schools and teachers, we have ample evidence that addressing the whole life of the child is the only avenue to closing an achievement gap. Barton and Coley have crafted a plan to address reform targeting schools, children’s homes, and the complex mix of any child’s community and wider society.

But the political, corporate, and media elite—who are using the “achievement gap” refrain to mask their true commitments to maintaining the current status quo of privilege and inequity—reject all evidence-based calls for addressing social forces as using poverty for an excuse. Yet, the persistent result that in-school-only reform has achieved over the past half century is to ensure, as the newest report shows (just as all studies have shown), that the gap remains.

And this first point leads to a key failure in logic that is the second point: 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.”

This second point is a simple failure in logic. If we start with a solid premise (the lives of children outside of school contribute about 60-80+% of measurable student outcomes), and then implement inequitable in-school policies (testing, labeling, and stratifying students in order to ask less of those labeled most in need), we should expect only one outcome—a persistent achievement gap.

Historically and currently, we pretend that test scores fairly represent learning, we pretend that schools alone determine student outcomes, we implement inequitable school policies that we label as reform addressing the gap, we pretend that lives of inequity and lives of privilege somehow pause while we implement these policies, and then we express disbelief that the achievement gap persists.

And this is the cruel irony of political and bureaucratic approaches to the achievement gap—an irony that is a damning rebuttal to the intent of the rhetoric each time a political or corporate leader speaks to that gap.

A few key shifts in both how we discuss the achievement gap and address that gap would show a genuine concern for closing that gap:

• We must replace the phrase “achievement gap” with “equity gap”—clearly expressing that many aspects of children’s lives reflect the persistent facts of privilege and inequity in our culture. Since children have little autonomy and no political power, children remain the most stark mirrors of who we are as people and a culture.

• We must address inequity in the lives of children and their families—and confront our cultural habit of masking those inequities behind our myths claiming freedom and equality for all. If we indeed embrace the ideal of human agency and equity, then we must also be willing to admit that this ideal has yet to be achieved. We have historically embraced the myth to the exclusion of confronting we have work left to be done.

• We must focus all school reform on ending traditional and bureaucratic approaches to education that perpetuate the inequity and privilege students bring to school from their lives: standardized testing that is highly correlated with students’ home characteristics, stratified courses and gate-keeping policies for those courses, inequitable teacher assignments and class sizes (privileged students sit in classrooms with the most experienced and highly qualified teachers as well as the smallest student/teacher ratios), and a community-based school resources model that allows each school to reflect the coincidence of every child’s birth to determine her/his access to education.

The political and corporate elite benefit from a constant state of education crisis because that perception allows them to point at the schools and distract us from their own failure to address the conditions of inequity that insure their privilege.

People living in poverty and trapped in a cycle of social inequity—specifically children—are not the agents of that inequity. The powerful determine the conditions of our society, and our schools reflect and maintain those conditions.

A persistent achievement gap is an accurate indictment of our schools as mechanisms of perpetuating inequity and privilege, but it is a greater indictment of the power of the cultural elite to maintain their privilege while claiming to seek equity.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

“The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” begins a poem by Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America. A careful reading notices “gold bracelets,” suggesting more than affluence, opulence. The poem continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

The two women speak interchangeably about the fired domestic worker and the vase, both reduced to “one,” and “worked” is repeated about only the broken vase, an object for decoration and a Christmas gift. “It” and “colors” also haunt the conversation. In this brief poetic scene, the callousness of two affluent women about the value of an ornament over a worker (one who apparently is not a native speaker of English, and as suggested by the Spanish/English versions of all the poems and title of the collection, likely Latino/a) is couched in a larger context found in the poem’s title, “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator.”

This flippant conversation is overheard by another worker, a janitor (who do you see as the “janitor”?), standing essentially unseen, unacknowledged beside these women (who do you see as these women?), trapped momentarily in an elevator.

Kingsolver’s stark and vivid poem captures, as does Kingsolver’s entire collection, the existence of two Americas, a slogan trivialized by politicians and ignored like the janitor by much of the public in the U.S.

The two Americas include the few and affluent, mostly white, who have virtually all the power and, as the poem shows, a voice in the nation and the remaining many, disproportionately middle-class, working-class, working poor, and poor as well as African American and, increasingly, Latino/a.

Let’s consider for a moment what students may be asked to do if presented with this poem in a public high school in the U.S., specifically in this expanding era of accountability and the encroaching specter of Common Core and the concurrent new high-stakes tests.

Based on my having been an educator during the entire past thirty years of the accountability era, I would suggest that this poem would be reduced to mechanistic analysis, in much the same way we have treated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for decades.

While many are rightfully concerned that the Common Core will significantly decrease the focus on fiction and poetry in schools, we have yet to address that even if we maintain great poetry and fiction in the education of our children, we do them or that literature little service to allow those works to be reduced only to their literary parts, mere interchangeable fodder for identifying lination, stanzas, diction, symbolism, narration, characterization, setting, and the endless nuts and bolts deemed worthy of dispassionate analysis in school.

How many generations of students, for example, have examined at length the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and Gatsby’ yellow car? How many students have been guided through the technical precision of Fitzgerald’s novel while never confronting his vivid challenge to the American Dream?

Have students been asked to look carefully at the corpses of Myrtle and George (the wrong kind of people, George a mere worker and Myrtle left like roadkill in the middle of the road) as well as Gatsby (the wrong kind of rich) floating dead in his pool? Have students been asked why Tom and Daisy (the right kind of rich) go on vacation in the wake of these deaths, seemingly untarnished because of the Teflon coating of their affluence?

Have students been asked to consider carefully why Tom hits Myrtle but bends to Daisy’s taunts?

These are distinctions of analysis—suggesting that Common Core and curriculum are trivial debates if we do not address what happens in the classroom and for whom.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

The technical approach to literature that ignores critical literacy is a subset of the larger technical debate about education and education reform that focuses policy and public attention on the details of schooling (public versus charter and private, Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added methods of evaluating teachers) and ignores the substance of schooling like a janitor trapped in an elevator with two wealthy women.

The substance of schooling today is a stark contrast to the moment of cultural consciousness stretching from the early 1950s into the 1970s when separate but equal was confronted and rejected. As society in the U.S. wrestled with integration of institutions, the cancer of segregation was merely shifted from separate schools to schools-within-schools: White and affluent students tend to sit in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes with experienced and qualified teachers and low student-teacher ratios while AA/ Latino/a and impoverished students tend to sit in remedial, test-prep, and tech-prep classes with new and unqualified teachers (in the twenty-first century that means often Teach for America recruits as temporary workers) and high student-teacher ratios.

In-school segregation has been driven by affluent parents, who use their privilege to insure that their children get theirs, and damn the rest. But segregation by design has now been joined by two powerful and corrosive mechanisms—charter schools and segregated higher education access.

Charter schools (see Charter Schools: A Primer and Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity) have failed to achieve the academic miracles proponents have promised, but charter schools have exposed the most predictable outcome of choice, segregation. As Sarah Carr has shown, New Orleans is a disturbing record of the charter schools flood, the role disaster capitalism plays in destroying equity and opportunity for “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” African Americans and people trapped in poverty.

While schools-within-schools and charter schools highlight K-12 segregation by design in the U.S., as troubling is the entrenched privilege of affluence found in higher education, augmenting Matt Bruenig’s conclusion: “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”

Carnevale and Strohl have identified the separate and unequal access to higher education that constitutes the full picture of segregation by design in the U.S.:

The postsecondary system mimics the racial inequality it inherits from the K-12 education system, then magnifies and projects that inequality into the labor market and society at large….

Whites have captured most of the enrollment growth at the 468 most selective and well-funded four-year colleges, while African Americans and Hispanics have captured most of the enrollment growth at the increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced open-access two- and four-year colleges….

These racially polarized enrollment flows have led to an increasing overrepresentation of whites at the 468 most selective four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges…. (Executive Summary, pp. 3, 6, 10, 12)

The inequitable access to elite higher education mirrors the inequitable access to quality K-12 education and to experienced and qualified teachers. Inequitable access, then, creates inequitable outcomes:

[H]igh-scoring African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to drop out of college before completing a credential….

Among high-scoring students who attend college, whites are far more likely to complete a BA or higher compared to African Americans or Hispanics….

Each year, there are 111,000 high-scoring African-American and Hispanic students who either do not attend college or don’t graduate.

About 62,000 of these students come from the bottom half of the family income distribution….

Racial inequality in the educational system, paired with low social and economic mobility in the United States, produces enormous differences in educational outcomes: Whites are twice as likely as African Americans and three times as likely as Hispanics to complete a BA or higher…. (Carnevale and Strohl, 2013, Executive Summary, pp. 24, 26, 28, 37)

Despite the meritocracy myth at the heart of the American Dream, then, Carnevale and Strohl conclude: “In the United States, parents’ education determines the educational attainment of their children” (Executive Summary, p. 38).

The cruel irony of education in the U.S. includes that most privileged children will find themselves in classrooms where color imagery (the gold bracelet in Kingsolver’s poem, the green dock light and yellow car in The Great Gatsby) will be the key to the already unlocked door leading to college and secure, high-paying jobs while AA and Latino/a as well as impoverished students are shown quite a different door.

All the while, the colors that matter—black, brown, white, and green—remain invisible and unspoken under the veneer of the American Dream of meritocracy that is less credible than any work of fiction soon to be dropped from the school day.

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

In 2011, Jim Taylor entered the poverty and education debate, asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire/education entrepreneur Bill Gates a direct question*:

I really don’t understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world’s second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?

Taylor’s discussion comes to an important element in the debate when he addresses Gates: “Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can’t find solutions,” explains Taylor, adding. “You’re obviously trying to solve public education’s version of the classic ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.”

Here, recognizing the education/poverty debate as a chick-or-egg problem is the crux of how this debate is missing the most important questions about poverty—and as a result, insuring that Duncan, Gates, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and other corporate reformers are winning the argument by perpetuating the argument.

The essential questions about poverty and education should not focus on whether we should address poverty to improve education (where I stand, based on the evidence and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or whether we should reform education as the sole mechanism to alleviate poverty (the tenant of the “no excuses” ideology found at Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charters); the essential question about poverty is: Who creates and allows poverty to exist in the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history?

The Conservative Nature of Power

As a basic point of logic, any organized entity—a society, a business, a school—has characteristics that are either created or tolerated by those in power controlling that organization. All entities are by their nature conservative—functioning to maintain the entity itself. In other words, institutions and their norms resist change, particularly radical change that threatens the hierarchy of power.

In the U.S., then, poverty exists in the wider society and performs a corrosive influence in the education system (among all of our social institutions, our Commons) because the ruling elite—political and corporate leaders—need poverty to maintain their elite status at the top of the hierarchy of power.

While the perpetual narratives promoted by the political and corporate elite through the media elite have allowed this point of logic to be masked and ignored in American society, we must face the reality that people with power drive the realities of those without power. Yes, the cultural narratives driven by the elite suggest that people trapped in poverty are somehow in control of that poverty—either creating it themselves due to their own sloth, that they somehow deserve their station in life, or failing to rise above that poverty (and this suggestion allows the source of poverty to be ignored) from their own failure to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

But that narrative has no basis in evidence—since those without power have control of that which creates the conditions benefiting the elite. The powerful allow those without power to have some token or artificial autonomy—as parents with children—in order to create the illusion of autonomy to keep revolt at bay; this is why the political and corporate elite use the word “choice” and perpetuate the myth that all classes in America have the same access to choice.

Poverty as Necessary for Current Hierarchies of Power

How does poverty benefit the powerful in the U.S.?

  • U.S. cultural narratives depend on the Utopian elements of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom. Those ideals form the basis for most of the cultural narratives expressed by the political and corporate elite in the U.S. Poverty works as the Other in those narratives—that which we must all reject, that which we must strive to avoid. If the Utopian goals, including eliminating poverty, is ever achieved, however, the tension between the working-/middle- class and those in poverty would be eliminated as well, exposing the artificial perch upon which the ruling elite sit. The necessity of poverty works both to keep us from attaining the Utopian goals and to make the Utopian goals attractive.
  • Poverty contributes to the crisis motif that keeps the majority of any society distracted from the minority elite benefiting disproportionately from the labor of the majority. Crises large and small—from Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists to the War on Drugs to teen pregnancy to the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis—create the perception that the average person cannot possibly keep these crises under control (crises that would plunge otherwise decent people into the abyss of poverty) and, thus, needs the leadership and protection of the elite. The majority of average people can only be carried to the promised land of Utopian peace and equality by the sheer force of personality held by only a few; these ruling elite are the only defense against the perpetual crises threatening the ideals we hold sacred (see below for how we identify those elite).
  • Along with Utopian promises and the refrain of crisis, the ruling elite need the pervasive atmosphere of fear—whether real or fabricated—in order to occupy the time and energy of the majority. [1] Poverty becomes not just a condition to be feared, but also those people to be feared. The cultural narratives—in contrast to the evidence—about poverty and people living in poverty connect poverty and crime, poverty and drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence, poverty and unattractiveness, and most of all, poverty and the failure of the individual to grasp the golden gift of personal freedom afforded by the United States.

Just as we rarely consider the sources of poverty—who controls the conditions of our society—we rarely examine the conditions we are conditioned to associate with poverty and people living in poverty. Are the wealthy without crime? Without drug abuse? Without deceptions of all kinds? Of course not, but the consequences for these behaviors by someone living in privilege are dramatically different than the consequences for those trapped in poverty.

The ruling elite have created a culture where we see the consequences of poverty, but mask the realities of privilege.

Winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair, and winners need losers in order to maintain the status of “winner.” The U.S., then, is a democracy only as a masking narrative that maintains the necessary tension among classes—the majority working-/middle-class ever fearful of slipping into poverty, and so consumed by that fear that they are too busy and fearful to consider who controls their lives: “those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” [2]

In the narrow debate about poverty and education, we are being manipulated once again by the ruling elite, within which Duncan and Gates function, to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem of poverty/education so that we fail to examine the ruling elite creating and tolerating poverty for their own benefit. By creating the debate they want, they are winning once again.

And that success derives in large part from their successful propaganda campaign about the value of testing.

The Meritocracy Myth, Science, and the Rise of New Gods

Now that I have argued for shifting the discourse about poverty and education away from the chick-and-egg problem to the role of sustaining and tolerating poverty for the benefit of the ruing elite, let’s look at the central role testing plays in maintaining the status quo of power in the U.S. And let’s build that consideration on a couple pillars of evidence.

First, despite decades committed to the science of objective, valid, and reliable standardized testing, outcomes from standardized tests remain most strongly correlated with the socio-economic status of the students. As well, standardized tests also remain biased instruments.

Next, more recently during the thirty-year accountability era, the overwhelming evidence shows that standards, testing, and accountability do not produce the outcomes that political proponents have claimed.

Thus, just as the poverty/education question should address who creates and allows poverty and why, the current and historical testing obsession should be challenged in terms of who is benefiting from our faith in testing and why.

The history of power, who sits at the top and how power is achieved, is one of creating leverage for the few at the expense of the many. To achieve that, often those at the top have resorted to explicit and wide-scale violence as well as fostering the perception that those at the top have been chosen, often by the gods or God, to lead—power is taken and/or deserved.

“God chose me” and “God told me” remain powerful in many cultures, but in a secular culture with an ambiguous attitude toward violence (keep the streets of certain neighborhoods here crime-free, but war in other countries is freedom fighting) such as the U.S., the ruling elite needed a secular god—thus, the rise of science, objectivity, and testing:

[A] correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications, and rules; from which it extends it effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity. [3]

As I noted above, testing remains a reflection of the inequity gap in society and the high-stakes testing movement has not reformed education or society, so the rising call for even more testing of students, testing based on nationalized standards and used to control teachers, must have a purpose other than the Utopian claims by the political and corporate elite who are most invested in the rising testing-culture in the U.S.

That purpose, as with the necessity of poverty, is to maintain the status quo of a hierarchy of power and to give that hierarchy the appearance of objectivity, of science.

Standards, testing, and accountability are the new gods of the political and corporate elite.

Schools in the U.S. are designed primarily to coerce children to be compliant, to be docile; much of what we say and consider about education is related to discipline—classroom management is often central to teacher preparation and much of what happens during any school day:

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. [4]

In education reform, the surveillance of students, and now the surveillance of teachers, is not covert, but in plain view in the form of tests (and even Gates calling for cameras in all classrooms) allowing that surveillance to be disembodied from those students and teachers—and thus appearing to be impersonal—and examined as if objective and a reflection of merit.

Testing as surveillance in order to create compliance is central to maintaining hierarchies of power both within schools (where a premium is placed on docility of students and teachers) and society, where well-trained and compliant voters and workers sustain the positions of those in power:

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes. [5]

The political and corporate elite in the U.S. have risen to their status of privilege within the “scientifico-legal complex” that both created that elite and is then perpetuated by that elite. As I noted above, the winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair and will work to maintain the rules that have produced their privilege.

The Expanded Test Culture—“The Age of Infinite Examination”

Foucault has recognized the central place for testing within the power dynamic that produces a hierarchy of authority:

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish. [6]

Thus, as the rise of corporate paradigms to replace democratic paradigms has occurred in the U.S. over the last century, we can observe a rise in the prominence of testing along with how those tests are used. From the early decades of the twentieth century, testing in the U.S. has gradually increased and expanded in its role for labeling, sorting, and controlling students. In the twenty-first century, testing is now being wedged into a parallel use to control teachers.

Those in power persist in both cases—testing to control students and testing to control teachers—to claim that tests are a mechanism for achieving Utopian goals of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom, but in both cases, those claims are masks for implementing tests as the agent of powerful gods (science, objectivity, accountability) to justify the current hierarchy of power—not to change society or education: “[T]he age of the ‘examining’ school marked the beginnings of a pedagogy that functions as science.” [7]

Foucault, in fact, identifies three ways that testing works to reinforce power dynamics, as opposed to providing data for education reform driven by a pursuit of social justice.

First, testing of individual students and using test data to identify individual teacher quality create a focus on the individual that reinforces discipline:

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. [8]

This use of testing resonated in President Obama’s first term as Secretary Duncan simultaneously criticized the misuse of testing in No Child Left Behind and called for an expansion of testing (more years of a student’s education, more areas of content, and more directly tied to individual teachers), resulting in: “We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification.” [9]

As Giles Deleuze confirms in “Postscript on the Societies of Control”:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Next, testing has provided a central goal of sustaining the hierarchy of power—“the calculation of gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given ‘population.’” [10] Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

What tends to be ignored in the testing debate is that some people with authority determine what is taught, how that content is taught, what is tested, and how that testing is conducted. In short, all testing is biased and ultimately arbitrary in the context of who has authority.

And finally, once the gaps are created and labeled through the stratifying of students and teachers:

[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc. [11]

Poverty and Testing—Tools of the Privileged

Within the perpetual education and education reform debates, the topics of poverty and testing are central themes (poverty is no excuse, and better tests are always being promised), but we too often are missing the key elements that should be addressed in the dynamic that exists between poverty and testing.

Yes, standardized tests remain primarily reflections of social inequity that those tests make possible, labeled as “achievement gaps.”

But the central evidence we should acknowledge is that the increased focus on testing coming from the political and corporate elite is proof that those in privilege are dedicated to maintaining poverty as central to their hierarchy of authority.

Standards, testing, accountability, science, and objectivity are the new gods that the ruling class uses to keep the working-/middle-class in a state of “perpetual anxiety,” fearing the crisis of the moment and the specter of slipping into poverty—realities that insure the momentum of the status quo.

* Reposted and revised/updated from earlier publication at Truthout.

References

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See Foucault’s discussion of “perpetual anxiety” (p. 144) in “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Ibid., p. 170.

[4] Ibid., p. 189.

[5] Ibid., p. 195.

[6] Ibid., p. 197.

[7] Ibid., p. 198.

[8] Ibid., p. 199.

[9] Ibid., p. 200.

[10] Ibid., p. 202.

[11] Ibid., p. 203.

Nina Simone: The Ignored, the Silenced Voices of Protest

As a political and public debate, the state of U.S. public education—and all of the Commons—as well as what education reform is needed overlaps and intersects with debates about whose voice matters and what words and tone are acceptable or appropriate.

Powerful and essential discussions about race and racism, about deficit assumptions concerning people in poverty, speak to Arundhati Roy’s “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Nina Simone’s voice demands that we confront debates about language and tone as they contribute to and detract from political and public struggles with democracy, the Commons, liberation, and the often unnamed plights of racism, sexism, and the persistent culture of violence that defines America:

“Mississippi Goddam”

(1963) (c) Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Washing the windows
“do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“do it slow”
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I made you thought I was kiddin’ didn’t we
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Desegregation
“do it slow”
Mass participation
“do it slow”
Reunification
“do it slow”
Do things gradually
“do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
That’s it for now! see ya’ later

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

When Jose Vilson posts a blog, I read carefully, and I don’t multitask.

Why?

I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire 52 years in the South where racism clings to our region like the stench of a house razed by fire. And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white.

So when Jose posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

“Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

“However, for anyone to say that racial insults are ‘no big deal’ speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, ‘You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.’ I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

“How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

“Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront.”

I learned, painfully and too slowly, I regret to admit, to read and listen to Jose as I do with Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of a book project I co-edit.

I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people and specifically African American males.

I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers), and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live.

I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, that the most beautiful humans, the greatest reasons to live on this planet are children of every possible shade—red and yellow, black and white children laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race, or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as any race of people

America the Beautiful created a criminal class out of African America men, building a new Jim Crow with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs.

America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero tolerance school houses imprisoning urban communities.

And these are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit, as James Baldwin, in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted as an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

“Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. ‘They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.’

“There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this ‘bad nigger’—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them….”

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today, the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

“This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

“One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. ‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. ‘They don’t want us—period!’ The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.”

Today, the racism is thinly masked, and only the adults refuse to see it.

However, “the children do notice.”

In 1853, Frederick Douglass [1] recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

“Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

“As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.”

Douglass’s charges remain in Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

“The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like ‘the final solution’—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days.”

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men, don’t incarcerate young black men, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it, we will not unmask it, and ultimately, the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and James (“Jimmy” of the allusion-as-blog-title) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love: Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

I may have no real right to these words as a privileged, white male, but I offer them, as I stated above, because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Jose, refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.”

And as Baldwin referenced: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”—and we all must hear what everyone else says, the words they choose, never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love,

Paul

[1] The passage below is cited by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.

Middle-Class Fear: Disaster Capitalism and the Threat of Poverty

Toward the end of HBO’s documentary American Winter, Brandon is finally offered a job after viewers have watched him and his wife Pam struggle against Brandon losing his job, resulting in their being unable to pay their rent and having to live with Pam’s mother.

When Brandon is told he has the job, his new boss notes Brandon is overqualified, but Brandon eagerly explains that he is thankful for the work and committed to do whatever he can to be a good worker—despite the cut in pay and drop in job status not in his plans as a young man and husband seeking the American Dream.

In a May Experience course (a three-week mini-semester after the traditional academic calendar at my university) built on education documentaries and confronting the connection between education and poverty, two of the most powerful films include HBO documentaries—Hard Times at Douglass High and Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Just as these works rise above the generally poor examinations of education found among education documentaries, American Winter is another HBO success, a thoughtful and confrontational exploration of poverty against the backdrop of the American Dream as it is being tarnished by disaster capitalism [1].

The scene above with Brandon and a few other aspects of the documentary give me pause, but first, I want to highlight how the film overwhelmingly succeeds.

The place of American Winter is Portland, Oregon, and the  situation, the wake of the 2008 economic downturn that swept across the U.S. and the world. But the single greatest achievement of the film is the focus on eight families (ironically also the most troubling aspect as I will discuss below) who put “people just like us” faces on the consequences of disaster capitalism and force the audience to reconsider stereotypes of people trapped in the clutches of poverty.

The people of these narratives are overwhelmingly white and entirely from the middle and working classes—simultaneously, literally not “people just like us” (considering the increasing racial diversity of the country) but also the characteristics historically associated with the idealized middle class of the American Dream myth. It is both important and problematic that the families in this film are not victims of generational poverty, but real-world models of people who have embraced and achieved, although momentarily, some elements of that American Dream—education, careers, homes or the promise of home ownership, marriage, children, and, not to be ignored in the background throughout the video, an abundance of assorted material possessions that can be found in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across America.

Punctuating these stories are job loss, eviction, homelessness, hunger, sickness, and the frail as well as dwindling safety nets of government, church, and private organizations.

Documentaries, like all forms of nonfiction texts, are never unbiased, and always some political and ideological lens for observing a phenomenon. Too often documentaries are shoddy, careless, and misleading. American Winter wears its ideology on its sleeve, but does so effectively and with a level of integrity that lends it credibility even for those who don’t share its social justice politics.

The families are allowed primarily to speak for themselves, literally and through a patient camera following them as they wilt beneath the weight of joblessness and homelessness—especially when the children speak, cry, and personify the incredible inequity of how burdensome healthcare can be through no fault of those who find themselves sick (for example, Chelsea’s battle with bleeding ulcers leaves her mother Shanon facing $49,000 in medical bills while the family is otherwise destitute).

The film also weaves clear and confrontational statistics throughout the stories of the families. The blunt facts and harsh experiences in this documentary present a different picture than political leaders, the media, and the public tend to embrace and perpetuate: Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and seeking out social services are not the consequences of flawed individuals, but the result of systemic inequity in America’s government and economy.

The idealized American Dream may never have been a credible cultural foundation, but American Winter convincingly forces viewers to recognize that democracy and capitalism have been consumed by disaster capitalism. And here are some of the questions the film does raise as well as some of the problems embedded in an otherwise ambitious and even radical project.

“Disaster capitalism” [2] is a term associated with Noami Klein, as she explains:

People spontaneously started using “disaster capitalism” to describe what was happening with what they were seeing around them because it was so clear that this disaster was being harnessed to push through a radical vision of totally unrestricted markets. And Bush didn’t make too much of a secret of it when he announced that his idea of reconstructing the Gulf Coast was to turn it into a tax-free, free-enterprise zone.

What the book is doing that’s new is it is connecting these contemporary capitalisms, which I think most of us can easily see in Iraq and in New Orleans, and saying actually this isn’t just some twisted invention of the Bush White House. That actually there is a history. Every time there has been a major leap forward for this fundamentalist version of capitalism that really doesn’t see a role for the state, the ground has been prepared by some kind of shock.

In American Winter, the disaster is the economic downturn, but in New Orleans, the disaster was natural, Hurricane Katrina. Portland and New Orleans [3] also share a central mechanism of disaster capitalism: A disaster creates the opportunity for a workforce to be erased, the job market then contracts, and a workforce is rebuilt in reduced circumstances for the workers—lower wages, part-time positions instead of full-time employment, an absence of benefits, service positions replacing skill and managerial positions.

The events in Portland and New Orleans are stark examples that the workforce problem in the U.S. is not a lack of skilled and eager workers, but an artificially contracting business model that benefits the 1% with American workers as interchangeable widgets.

While the focus on the plight of the American worker is needed and vivid in American Winter, one consequence of the choice to examine American workers dropping into poverty is that poverty is regrettable and something to be addressed only because it can (and did) happen to the working and middle class—in other words, generational poverty is left at the side of this film and the corrosive myth that generational poverty is the fault of those in poverty remains untouched.

In fact, as the viewers’ sympathy for the eight families increases, it seems entirely likely that people in generational poverty may be viewed even more harshly than before because poverty sits as a middle-class fear in the film. The deficit and demonizing perspectives of poverty are not challenged in the film and may be unintentionally strengthened.

In its purest form, capitalism may be viewed as needing all  citizens having access to some relatively balanced reserve of capital for that consumer market to thrive, but disaster capitalism is a corruption of the distribution of capital, thriving in fact on the threat of poverty as motivation for low-wage, mind-numbing and soul-draining work. Disaster capitalism is hurt less by some having no or little capital than by the absence of poverty, an absence that would lift the necessary threat that maintains a culture of fear and a frantic pace that distracts the 99% while the 1% play.

Many scenes in American Winter haunt me, but few as much as Brandon, reduced and broken, at the end in a scene that likely was intended as one glimmer of light in a truly dark winter for these families.

But Brandon—like many of the children in these families—personifies how disaster capitalism and consumerism have created an existence whereby our humanity is almost entirely anchored to who we are as workers. Our worker self is not a subset of who we are as humans; our worker self is our self.

Ultimately, that is the greatest disaster in disaster capitalism.

[1] Listen to Steve Hargadon interview Adam Bessie and see Bessie/Archer graphic journalism series on disaster capitalism and education reform (G.E.R.M.):

[3] See Sarah Carr’s Hope against Hope, which examines how charter schools replaced the public school system in New Orleans post-Katrina.

“The Poor Are Too Free”?: Unlocking the Middle-Class Code

Walking outside the Commander’s compound in the “heart of Gilead,” Offred (June) is reminded of her past now swept away by the rise of Gilead, the theocracy at the center of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless.

This idealized middle-class fantasy ignores that behind the weightless freedom often lurked the life-long burden of debt—the thirty-year mortgages, the monthly bills, the billowing cost of college-for-all. A motif of freedom weaves its way through Atwood’s “dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were,” a work with George Orwell just below the surface.

To fulfill her role as a handmaid (fertile women designated to conceive with the Commanders), Offred (June) has been re-educated at the Rachel and Leah Center by the Aunts, women controlling women. The Aunts as the teachers for Gilead help the handmaids understand freedom:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much freedom.

As Atwood explains,

Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle, its ever-present shadow, sublegal opportunism, and the propensity of the powerful to indulge in behind-the-scenes sensual delights forbidden to everyone else. But such locked-door escapades must remain hidden, for the regime floats as its raison d’être the notion that it is improving the conditions of life, both physical and moral; and like all such regimes, it depends on its true believers.

In the “no excuses” charter school movement, David Whitman is a true believer, a voice for the “new” paternalism that shares a haunting parallel with the paternalism of Atwood’s dystopia:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance….Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Another true believer, cited by Whitman in his Sweating the Small Stuff, is Lawrence Mead, who claims in The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty: “The problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free.”

Now let’s add all this up, as Diane Ravitch has helped us do the math: President Barack Obama + Secretary of Education Arne Duncan + speechwriter David Whitman + “the poor are too free” Lawrence Mead = “no excuses” education policy.

People trapped in poverty, Mead et al. argue, are suffering from too much freedom; therefore, they must be given freedom from (like the handmaids). Our “new” paternalistic schools, then, are gifts of the middle-class code bestowed upon children living in poverty, disproportionately children who also are African American and Latino/a.

So just what are these impoverished children being given freedom from?

Natalie Hopkins has one suggestion:

It’s a great question—one that gets to the heart of the tensions over “urban” school reform. What will our schools look like once they “succeed”? Will black girls stop playing hand games? Will black boys lose the urge to tap West African rhythms on their desks? Will children graduate bearing no trace of the poverty, riches, triumph, failure, and culture that form the complex kaleidoscope of blackness in this country?…But the problem is when you consider education policy for the past six decades, there hasn’t been a war at all. From desegregation to today’s “school choice” [such as charter schools], every single scheme has been designed to kill off the Negro soul—or at least provide an escape hatch from it.

Another question is, What are the consequences of these new urban schools policies?

Examining the rise of “no excuses” charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, Sarah Carr cites one teacher: “‘The first week of school is all about compliance,’ said Kaycee Eckhardt, one of the founding teachers.”

But Carr notes that Andre Perry (institute for Quality and Equity in Education, Loyola University) “is troubled by the idea that children—and poor children of color most especially—need to be controlled. ‘There’s an insidious mistrust of children reflected in having them walk on lines or making them stay silent.’”

Yet, “no excuses” charter schools driven by a “new” paternalism that embraces a deficit view of children, people in poverty, and people of color remain committed to freedom from, despite the potential long-term outcomes:

Sci Academy and other ["no excuses"] charter schools like it run a risk in creating such structured, disciplined environments where students receive motivation from external rewards and punishments. The approach can backfire in the long run if students do not know how to function once all the structure and incentives disappear and if they do not learn how to think for themselves….Despite the guiding ambition to send all their students through college, Sci’s learning environment is the opposite of collegiate in many respects.

And here we find the ugly truth behind the claim that “no excuses” paternalism seeks to offer impoverished children of color the key to middle-class values: The people these students are being trained to be—as Hopkins unmasks—is not some middle-class ideal such as the one recalled by Offred (June), but the ideal that privileged people want for “other people’s children”—controlled, passive, silent, obedient, freedom from—so that privileged children can maintain their freedom to.

As in Gilead, the privileged orchestrate a world in which they have freedom to built on the rest having freedom from. And this deficit view by a paternalistic state extends beyond schools, as Deborah Meier condemns in her quote of the day:

“We are coming to find you and monitor every step you take. And we are going to learn about every bad friend you have. And you’re going to get alienated from those friends because we are going to be all over you.” Joanne Jaffe, of the New York City Police Department, on a program meant to steer juveniles away from crime.

Joanne Jaffe may have heart of gold, but she, and the NYC Police Department, couldn’t be further off the mark. This quotation and the story it goes with sent shivers up my spine. The idea that the kids will follow our advice if we treat them unfairly, interfere with their perfectly legal rights, harass them a bit more is so far from reality that it truly is scary.

Meier seeks a different barometer for the standards we allow for “other people’s children,” however:

That’s why medicine rests on “do no harm”—and so does raising children. So I often rest my arguments on “would I do it to myself” and “would I do it to my own offspring?” And if so, why not?

In “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), James Baldwin confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.” [Think of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

As an example, Baldwin adds:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them.

Baldwin’s central message appears relevant to the hallways of “no excuses” schools as well as the streets of urban America:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

This surrender of self, of culture, of race can be found in the normalizing effect of zero tolerance policies that turn the school-to-prison pipeline into schools-as-prison as well as the conversion of urban public schools into “no excuses” charter schools. “DuBois might have called our flight from blackness and fixation with standardized tests ‘measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity,’” explains Hopkins, adding:

In order to move beyond the black/white, negative/positive binary that dominated DuBois’ 20th century, we need to generate some new definitions. What does it mean to be educated? What is history? What is “culture”and how can our public institutions value it? We need new definitions for success – hopefully ones that don’t deodorize the funk.

The middle-class code of “no excuses” school reform, it seems, is more about someone else’s freedom from to preserve the freedom to remain privileged.

While privileged children sit in gifted classrooms and private academies that celebrate creativity and respecting a child’s innate zest for learning, a separate and unequal school system is being built on a “new” paternalism platform that hides issues of race and class behind code words like “middle class.”

As Baldwin envisioned almost fifty years ago, if “no excuses” ideologies win, “the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society,” but it will be one designed for them and not by them.