How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”—this quotable is now common on memes across the Internet, always attributed to Mark Twain:

Why we cannot trust meme-truth.

The problem, however, is no one can find any evidence Twain ever uttered or wrote these words.

But the premise of the saying against the momentum of online of misattribution [1] prompts me to offer a line from Airplane II: The Sequel, by Buck Murdock (William Shatner): “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

That Twain didn’t write that doesn’t discount the credibility of the claim, and thus, that leads to my never-ending (it seems) disappointment about how the mainstream media addresses education.

Part of the problem is that journalists and others in the media are simply uninformed about disciplinary fields, such as education, that have rich research bases and histories. Another large component of the problem is that journalists and the media have little to check them since the public often shares the same misconceptions journalists and the media promote and work within.

David Dunning highlights that many people are “confident idiots”:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

Dunning adds that being uninformed has an odd effect, one confirmed by research:

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

And thus, as Alamy Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett report: Today’s key fact: you are probably wrong about almost everything:

People from the UK also think immigrants make up twice the proportion of the population as is really the case – and that many more people are unemployed than actually are.

Such misconceptions are typical around the world, but they can have a significant impact as politicians aim to focus on voter perceptions, not on the actual data….

It is one thing for public opinion to be shaped by the perception of issues and another when politicians choose to make promises and write policies to feed and satisfy misconceptions.

While not unique to media coverage of education, we must face that both the media and the general public feed a tremendous amount of misinformation about education policy and research, school effectiveness, student achievement, and teacher quality.

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

Public education has been battered for over 150 years in the U.S., but the most recent thirty years of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing have increased that negative scrutiny; as well, the media now uses its flawed formula of showing both sides to give a fair-and-balanced view of how education is failing (no space for any other view than failure, by the way).

But just as the objective pose of journalism fails how education is covered in the mainstream press, a wide variety of equally misinformed assumptions about teaching, learning, and schooling tend to tarnish nearly all coverage of education.

I want here to examine an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal to highlight that pattern and examine how to anticipate and navigate those patterns: How I Learned Not to Hate School: Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program saved me. So why are teachers trying to kill it?

First, common in media coverage of education is an assumptive negative claim; in this title and subtitle we see “hate school” and “kill,” associated with public school and teachers. The positives are by implication and then directly related to market forces; being able to choose another school and the tax-credit scholarship “save” the writer.

Immediately, the piece embraces and speaks to a cultural distrust of government (publicly funded) and faith in the market throughout the U.S.—all of which is sparked in Denisha Merriweather’s opening paragraph:

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I had been held back twice, disliked school, and honestly believed I’d end up a high-school dropout. Instead, three months ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida in interdisciplinary social science with a minor in juvenile justice. I am the first member of my family to go to college, let alone graduate. But this didn’t happen by chance, or by hard work alone. It happened because I was given an opportunity.

Merriweather’s story proves to be compelling, and I believe anyone would support that her single experience is something to support. But that this is a personal story raises several issues.

First, an anecdote, one that may well be an outlier example, cannot prove or disprove a generalization; thus, if the generalization is that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship is flawed education policy, Merriweather’s story simply offers no evidence to reject that premise—one that may well be based on research of the entire program against the good of all people in Florida and the health of the education system in the state.

The only power that Merriweather’s anecdote has is that prompts an emotional response and triggers assumptions that may (or may not) be grounded in credible claims.

Next, Merriweather immediately identifies the tax-credit as the “difference maker” in her turn-around, implying that the scholarship and subsequent choice caused her transformation.

This claim is deeply flawed since causation is an incredibly hard thing to prove in formal research, much less in an individual’s anecdote. This leads us to two key points about the foundational claim by Merriweather that access to school choice caused her changed path in life.

As she details, her failed experiences in public schools were marked by a transient life, and then her success in private school was marked by stability. One possibility is that her transformation was linked to the shift from transience to stability—not a function of choice, and not a function of school type. In other words, if her life had stabilized in her years of public schools, she may have succeeded just as she did in a private school.

The implication by Merriweather includes both that choice was key in her success and that private schools trump public. This last point perfectly reflects the opening framing that market/private is inherently superior to government/public—concepts embraced by most people in the U.S. but strongly refuted by evidence.

In fact, among public, private, and charter schools [2], the type of schooling has little or no impact on the outcomes; all three types have the same range of outcomes, when student characteristics are controlled.

Another series of assumptions involve claims about effort and expectations, as Merriweather explains:

At Esprit de Corps, making honor roll is expected and academic success is celebrated. This environment was very different for me. But something clicked. My grades and self-confidence rose. I believed I could succeed and people there believed the same. Learning was no longer a nightmare, but a gift I greatly appreciated. I worked hard. In the end, I graduated with honors.

Private schools are better than public schools, in part because private schools expect more—that is the message. As I have noted above, private schools are not superior because they are private (most raw claims they are superior are based on more affluent student populations when compared to public), but we must also admit that expectations and effort are not the keys our cultural myths suggest. Despite our belief in demanding more and working hard, effort is often trumped by privilege and race.

And I think this leads to the greatest irony of Merrieweather’s piece since toward the end she highlights the power of opportunity, the one solid claim she makes. What is left unexamined, however, is that Merriweather argues for choice (and thus, chance) as the needed mechanism for opportunity instead of public policy that can insure equitable opportunity for everyone (consider civil rights legislation or women’s rights legislation); all of which again reveals how media representations of education are heavily couched in foundational beliefs, ones that are often refuted by credible evidence.

Yes, the Merriweather piece is an Op-Ed, not traditional news by a journalist, but I have detailed often that mainstream news articles follow the exact flawed patterns I have highlighted above: holding up anecdote and outliers as proof of generalizations, conflating causation and correlation, making sweeping but unsupported claims, couching all claims in market ideology, suggesting expectations and effort are more important than social forces, and only examining education in the U.S. through the lens of assumed failure.

When it comes to education coverage in the media—just as we should understand about memes on the Internet—reader beware:

Related Posts

Belief Culture: “We Don’t Need No Education”

Faith-Based Education Reform: Common Core as Standards-and-Testing Redux

[1] The Internet itself makes posting and spreading the misattribution quite easy, but also verifying equally as easy, although verifying such appears not to be nearly as compelling as spreading.

[2] See Di Carlo’s explanation about “charterness.”

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Higher education is facing difficult economic circumstances. While many are confronting how universities can remain both relevant and financially stable, few are admitting that a huge problem is not a lack of money, but the lure of money—billionaires buying university departments with powerful strings attached.

In my books on school choice and poverty, I have addressed the powerful and misguided roles that the media and think tanks have played in public educational discourse and policy. One example highlights the warning offered by Gerald Bracey:

That is where we currently stand in the school choice advocacy discourse that drives a substantial part of the new reformers’ plans. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people opposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty. And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the validity of the research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of scholarship.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

“In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers.” (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi)

I have detailed the problems with the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—misleading charter advocacy as well as my own experience with being misrepresented in the name of their advocacy.

Now, Valerie Strauss has shared similar concerns about the Charles Koch Foundation’s influence at Florida State University’s economics department; as Dave Levinthal explains:

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller.

Second, the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired.

And third, Bruce Benson, a prominent libertarian economic theorist and Florida State University economics department chairman, must stay on another three years as department chairman — even though he told his wife he’d step down in 2009 after one three-year term.

Education advocacy is now a very thinly veiled cover for much larger political and economic advocacy: Billionaires are buying the academy to create and maintain their powerful advantages.

One of the few walls protecting us against the tyranny of money has been academic freedom, securely (we thought) behind the wall of tenure.

And thus, while billionaires buy K-12 education and dismantle K-12 tenure and unions (Bill Gates, for example), billionaires are buying the academy and dismantling university tenure.

As we stand by and watch, we should be prepared to wave good-bye to scholarship, good-bye to equity, good-bye to democracy.

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cashing in on Journalism’s Neutral Pose

As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:

Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:

Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:

Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.

This is no surprise to me.

What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.

[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino's The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]

So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:

The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.

The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:

This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.

Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:

Freire neutral

 

As poet Adrienne Rich [1] has confronted:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.

For Further Reading

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

[1] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

The Great Media-Disciplines Divide

Posting at The South Lawn, Robert Reese, a PhD student in sociology at Duke University, confronts the marginalized role of the disciplines in the popular media:

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”

In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.

As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.

What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?

Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.

I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.

But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.

From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.

That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.

While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:

An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …

Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.

I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”

That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”

So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:

  • If you think some issue, practice, or debate in education (or any discipline) is new, take a deep breath and then assume that it is not (likely, it is not). Immediately seek out an expert in the discipline, one that has expertise in the history of the field, and start from there. (Just as a related note: Many rushed to glorify Howard Gardner when he became “hot” for multiple intelligences. In my doctoral program—deeply steeped in the history of education—we were quickly disabused of believing that ideas was “new” because similar ground had been covered many decades before Gardner.)
  • If you think a major issue or practice doesn’t already have a rich and complex research base—and thus it is you who shall examine it for the field—take a deep breath and then realize that (i) the discipline surely has a research base and (ii) idealizing the outsider viewpoint is the most offensive thing you can express to those in a discipline who have spent their lives considering that field carefully. (Note: I am primarily in the field of education, but I taught journalism for 13 years and have been a professional writer, including journalism, for most of my adult life. I confess that I do not have formal training in journalism, but I certainly have credible expertise in that field, enough so to make the claims I do here.)
  • And finally, if you insist on maintaining a commitment to “presenting both sides,” you are guaranteed to misrepresent the disciplines (see, for example, my discussion of sentence diagramming) and you have failed to learn from the disciplines since disciplinary stances are grounded in the body of research, honoring clear and convincing evidence. To present Side X equally with Side Y is to suggest the two sides are equal in credibility and weight (see the Oliver Rule); few issues have such simplistic balance. The disciplines honor positions with the most credibility and weight, driven by evidence (although there is nuance among the disciplines in issues such as what counts as evidence, etc.).

Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Late in 2013, I shared my own experience with the disaster capitalism tactics employed by the Walton-funded Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas), asking: For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

I detailed reasons why the answer is clearly “No”: the funding determines the claims in the so-called reports (see Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]), the nasty and unmerited swipes misrepresenting my view of children and parents in poverty (swipes I directly refuted but were allowed to remain in print; see For the Record noted above), and the racist/classist underpinnings of the practices practiced among “no excuses” charters (see Criticizing KIPP Critics).

But billionaires buying the appearance of credible scholarly research on education reform would not go very far without the blind allegiance of press release journalism (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).

And all of those factors combined reveal the Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public.

That formula is business as usual, regretfully, and one of the most recent and egregious examples can be found at The Post and Courier (Charleston), a frequent contributor to misinforming the public due to a failure to examine the credibility of reports: A bigger bang for school bucks:

An increasing number of parents who shop around before choosing a school for their children are opting for charter schools because they like the academic environment. But they might not be aware that those same schools also are giving the public a bigger bang for their buck than traditional schools.

Research at the University of Arkansas shows that charter schools in 30 states are neck-and-neck with traditional schools on eighth grade standardized tests. But they achieve those scores for significantly less money.

Imagine what they might do if charter schools were funded equitably.

Or better yet, imagine what we could do in our public schools if the mainstream media didn’t continue to follow blindly the lead of billionaires determined to dismantle those schools.

About that “Research at the University of Arkansas,” which the P&C could have easily found by just googling, let’s consider a critique by Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, who first notes the flaws in similar claims found in an earlier report about charter schools from the same source:

The University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform has just produced a follow up to their previous analysis in which they proclaimed boldly that charter schools are desperately uniformly everywhere and anywhere deprived of thousands of dollars per pupil when compared with their bloated overfunded public district counterparts (yes… that’s a bit of a mis-characterization of their claims… but closer than their bizarre characterization of my critique).

I wrote a critique of that report pointing out how they had made numerous bogus assumptions and ill-conceived, technically inept comparisons which in most cases dramatically overstated their predetermined, handsomely paid for, but shamelessly wrong claims.

That critique is here: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/ttruarkcharterfunding.pdf

The previous report proclaiming dreadful underfunding of charter schools leads to the low hanging fruit opportunity to point out that even if charter schools have close to the same test scores as district schools – and do so for so00000 much less money – they are therefore far more efficient. And thus, the nifty new follow up report on charter school productivity – or on how it’s plainly obvious that policymakers get far more for the buck from charters than from those bloated, inefficient public bureaucracies – district schools.

After detailing the repeated flaws in the report cited as credible by the P&C, Baker concludes:

Yes – that’s right – either this is an egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude, or this new report is a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data. So which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I guess either is possible.

Oh… and separately, in this earlier report, Kevin Welner and I discuss appropriate methods for evaluating relative efficiency (the appropriate framework for such comparisons)…. And to no surprise the methods in this new UARK report regarding relative efficiency are also complete junk. Put simply, and perhaps I’ll get to more detail at a later point, a simple “dollars per NAEP score” comparison, or the silly ROI method used in their report are entirely insufficient (especially as some state aggregate endeavor???).

And it doesn’t take too much of a literature search to turn up the rather large body of literature on relative efficiency analysis in education – and the methodological difficulties in estimating relative efficiency. So, even setting aside the fact that the spending measures in this study are complete junk, the cost effectiveness and ROI approaches used are intellectually flaccid and methodologically ham-fisted.

But if the measures of inputs suck to begin with, then the methods applied to those measures really don’t matter so much.

To say this new UARK charter productivity study is built on a foundation of sand would be offensive… to sand.

And I like sand.

No, charter schools are not offering a bigger bang for school bucks. In fact, charter schools are often nearly identical to public schools in both strengths and weaknesses (including the return of resegregation in both).

What is getting a bigger bang for the bucks? The Walton family and a wide assortment of other billionaire/edu-reformers.

What is providing that bang? The mainstream media that have chosen press release journalism because googling* is simply too much to expect, I suppose.

* Or just follow Bruce Baker (@SchlFinance101), Shanker Institute (@shankerinst), and NEPC (@NEPCtweet) on Twitter.

NOTE: See how corrosive these reports are as they become part of how the public responds to critical examinations of education and education reform: comment at AlterNet.

The Real “Low Expectations” Problem

I have asked this about the U.S. Secretary of Education: Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

And a large part of the answer may be because the uncritical mainstream media not only buy that message, but actively perpetuate it. For example, David Leonhardt beats that drum in Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor:

The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” is inevitably associated with George W. Bush, who used it frequently. But whatever your politics, the idea has undeniable merit: If schools don’t expect much from their students, the students are not likely to accomplish much.

A new international study, set to be released Tuesday, argues that the United States has an expectation problem.

The U.S. does, in fact, have a low expectations problem, but it isn’t where Duncan and the media claim. Political leaders and journalists need to heed the old adage about pointing a finger (three are aiming back at you).

Just as another example, see Colleen Flaherty’s Dropping the Ball?—a call for higher education to jump on the Common Core bandwagon:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is supposed to prepare K-12 students for higher education — but college and university faculty members and administrators remain largely removed from planning and rolling out these new assessments and standards. So argues a new paper from the New American Foundation, which urges colleges and universities to get involved in the Common Core to ensure the program ends up doing what it was supposed to do.

Both of these pieces suffer from the press release approach to journalism that insures presenting both sides as a mask for endorsing a solid status quo (and thus, not evidence-based) position: the “low expectations” myth and the standards-driven reform paradigm, both of which fail against significant bodies of research and scholarship.

So here are my responses sent to Leonhardt and Flaherty, as my commitment to speaking against the low expectations for U.S. media:

To Leonhardt (slightly edited):

This is evidence of the problem: Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor

But our only low expectations in the US are for political leadership (especially in education) and the media:

Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

I have been an educator for 31 years, 18 of which as a high school teacher in rural SC. I know poverty, lived among it all my life. The claims in this study and in your piece are more of the blame the victim attitude that is corrosive in the US. We must do better.

To Flaherty*:

Higher ed, in fact, needs to lead the evidence-based resistance to Common Core and the entire accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Mathis (2012) shows from an analysis of the standards movement, there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement; as well, standards in no way address equity, but have increased inequity.

See:

William Mathis (2012), NEPC

Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

The problem is more than CC as well: Paul Thomas: The Problem Isn’t Just Common Core, but the Entire Reform Agenda

The corrosive impact of accountability/standards/testing has already negatively impacted student learning, as Applebee and Langer have shown in relation to writing (see TCR: REVIEW: Writing Instruction That Works), but higher ed must recognize that this movement is also aimed at higher ed.

We should have been leading the resistance all along, but now we have even more vested interests in joining those who have unmasked the standards movement for what it is: not about teaching or learning, but testing in order to rank and sort (see Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing).

Yes, the U.S. as a society and through our public institutions—notably public education—must do a better job; we have too often failed.

But our low expectations problem rests solidly with what we are settling for in our political leaders and our mainstream media.

* I want to add that Colleen Flaherty responded to my email and plans to follow up. This is a rare positive response to my concerns, and I believe she should be commended for it.