Evidence Must Trump Idealism: A Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.

But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism [1], consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).

With yet another report released by NCTQ, that failure of the mainstream media has been highlighted once again—notably at NPR [2] and Education Week: Study Delivers Failing Grades For Many Programs Training Teachers, Claudio Sanchez and Juana Summers; Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report, Stephen Sawchuk; Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds, Lesli A. Maxwell.

First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:

  • If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
  • If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
  • Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).

Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public [3]. But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism [4].)

Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:

My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).

As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.

All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:

The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)

Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)

More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)

Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”

The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology [5].

So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:

When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)

“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism [6].

Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).

One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.

What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.

[1] Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).

[2] See a similar example with NPR’s coverage of “grit.”

[3] See the following in terms of how the mainstream media disproportionately reports on think tank (non-peer reviewed) reports as compared to peer-reviewed and university-based research:

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[4] I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.

[5] As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.

[6] Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

[Originally posted at Daily Kos and Truthout, "Click, Clack, Moo": Why the 1% Always Wins is a powerful companion to George Saunders's Allegory of Scarcity and Slack.]

As a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, I came to embrace a need to offer students a wide range of lenses for interacting with and learning from many different texts, but I also learned that coming to read and re-read, to write and re-write the world is both a powerful and disorienting experience for young people. So a strategy I now use and encourage other teachers to implement is reading and discussing children’s literature, picture books, while expanding the critical lenses readers have in their toolbox.

My favorite book for this activity is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. This work by Doreen Cronin with art by Betsy Lewin (view a read-aloud here) presents a clever and humorous narrative about Farmer Brown and his suddenly recalcitrant cows who, having acquired a rickety typewriter, establish a strike that inspires the chickens to join and ends with the neutral ducks aiding the revolt.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type

This story is ideal for asking teachers to consider the traditional approach to text in schools, New Criticism (a focus on text in isolation and on the craft in any story, such as characterization, plot, and theme), against Feminist and Marxist criticism, for example.

One fall, while doing the activity with a young adult literature class, I came against yet a new reading of Cronin and Lewin’s work: Why the 1% always wins.

The U.S. Public Likes Farmer Brown

As we explored Click, Clack, Moo recently, the adult members of the class told me they like Farmer Brown, with one student characterizing the striking farm animals as “mean.” And here is where I felt the need to consider how this children’s book helps us all confront the Occupy Wall Street movement or the rise in antagonism toward teachers, tenure, and unions as well as why the 1% continues to own the 99%.

One important element of the story is that the cows and chickens are female workers under the authority of the male Farmer Brown. These female workers produce for the farmer and remain compliant until the cows acquire the typewriter—both a powerful tool of literacy (the cows and chickens cannot effectively strike until they gain access to language) and a representation of access to technology (readers should note that the cows and chickens produce typewritten notes that show they find an old manual typewriter unlike the cleaner type produced by Farmer Brown on an electric typewriter, a representation of the inequity of access to technology among classes).

The cows and chickens, in effect, unionize and strike. Here, members of my classes often fail to notice the unionization, but tend to side with the farmer even when we acknowledge the protest as unionizing—particularly bristling at the duck, as a neutral party, using its access to the negotiation to acquire a diving board for the duck pond.

“Closed. No milk. No eggs”

Like the 1%, Farmer Brown is incensed that the cows and chickens demand basic necessities for comfort, electric blankets, but he eventually secures a compromise, agreeing to give the barn animals the requested electric blankets for the return of the typewriter (the story ends with the obvious next step that the duck uses the typewriter to trade for the diving board).

What tends to be missed in this story is that Farmer Brown ultimately wins; in fact, the barn animals appear to be eager to abandon their one access to power, the typewriter, for mere material items—the electric blankets as comfort many would see as a basic right and the diving board as frivolous entertainment.

The 1% have the 99% right where Farmer Brown has the barn animals—mesmerized by the pursuit of materialism and entertainment. Consider the eager hordes of consumers lined up to buy the then-new iPhone 4S, released on the cusp of the passing of Steve Jobs, heralded as a genius for his contribution to our consumer culture.

Just give us our iPhones and we’ll be quiet, we’ll work longer and harder for the opportunity to buy what the 1% tells us we want.

And when the 1% and their compliant media inform us that the top 20% pays 64% of taxes, we slip back to our barns with our tails between our legs, shamed.

Instead, we should be noting that, yes, the top 20% income earners pay 64% of taxes because they make 59% of income.

We, the 99% who tend to remain silent and compliant, wait patiently for the next generation of technology to occupy our time, our lives reduced to work and amassing the ever-changing and out-dated things that become passe as the next-thing lures us further and further into our sheep lives.

Yes, if we remain eager to trade our voices for things, the 1% will always be the winners.

When we learn to treasure voice over things, however, the chickens may come home to roost.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided world-views.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?”

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relived of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and phycially that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.

Oscar Wilde on the Poor and Socialism

While I highly recommend a careful reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism, I also urge you to consider that this examination of the consequences of private property and how that perpetuates poverty is stunningly similar to the current education reform movement, notably: “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

poor oscar wilde copy

Welcome to SC: A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude

This is my 53rd year of living in South Carolina, the totality of my life.

This is my 31st year as an educator in SC—18 years as a high school English teacher and 13 years now in higher education.

My teaching career, coincidentally, began the exact year SC officially stepped into the accountability/standards/testing arms race that grew out of the early 1980s.

Over the past 30 years, SC has created, implemented, revised, and changed a nearly mind-boggling array of standards and tests:

  • SC Frameworks
  • SC state standards (revised multiple times)
  • BSAP and exit exams
  • PACT
  • PASS
  • HSAP and EOC (end-of-course) tests
  • Common Core and high-stakes tests TBD
  • Two concurrent and competing sets of school report cards (the long-standing state version and the federal letter-grade based version)

Before I move on, let me add that SC is a high-poverty state (in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S.) that is historically and increasingly racially diverse, a right-to-work state that picks fights with unions that have no power, and a challenging environment for children of color (in the bottom third of the U.S. for African American and Latino/a children).

So now let’s return to the Accountability Hunger Games: SC Edition:

SC Senate approves replacing Common Core in 1 year

That’s right, before SC schools, teachers, and students can actually make the transition from the repeatedly revised (and obviously failed) standards-and-tests Merry-Go-Round of state-based accountability to the all-mighty Common Core gravy train of world-class and college-ready standards and next-generation high-stakes tests [insert trumpet]:

The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill that replaces Common Core education standards with those developed in South Carolina by the 2015-16 school year.

The bill, which passed 42-0, is a compromise of legislation that initially sought to repeal the math and reading standards that have been rolled out in classrooms statewide since their adoption by two state boards in 2010. Testing aligned to those standards must start next year, using new tests that assess college and career readiness, or the state will lose its waiver from the all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But the state won’t be able to use tests South Carolina officials helped create with 21 other states. A bid must go out by September for their replacement.

[Insert wah-wah-wah]

As ridiculous and muddled as that all is (and I think “heaping stumbling-bumbling mess of ineptitude” may be understating the level of ridiculousness), Seanna Adcox’s coverage of this likely next-move for SC is chock-full of even more ineptitude so let me counts the ways:

  1.  “‘We’re back on track,’ said Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville.” Fair has built a political career on his yearly efforts to dismantle SC’s science standards by inserting an endless series of not-so-clever Creationism edits to the evolution elements of those standards. [HINT: He may not be the best authority on SC's decisions about standards.]
  2. “Democrats say the bill forces the Legislature to spend money on technology in classrooms….” Ironically and sadly, SC is an equal-opportunity state in terms of political party ineptitude. SC is notorious for our Corridor of Shame, a swipe of high-poverty communities that roughly follows I-95 across the state. I will simply ask that you return to the Kids Count report on childhood opportunity and consider where tax dollars may be better spent than on technology investments for computer-based high-stakes testing that will further stigmatize the growing number of poor children of color in SC. [HINT: It ain't on more technology that will fail and become obsolete.]
  3. “Computer testing allows for a better assessment of both students’ abilities and teachers’ effectiveness….” And nothing like baseless and inaccurate claims to help! [HINT: Nope.]
  4. “‘This is about maintaining control,’ said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. ‘We shouldn’t cede our authority over children’s education to an outside process.’” See above and consider the smashing good job SC has done on its own for three decades. [HINT: That last sentence is sarcasm.]
  5. “Both the House and Senate budget proposals would spend about $30 million on technology next school year, focusing on rural districts.” $30 million on technology. [HINT: $30 million on technology.]

Unless that technology plan includes a provision for turning the iPads purchased into food trays once they are obsolete in a few months, I would posit that this entire farce is beyond ineptitude.

And I must add: SC is not some looney example of ineptitude in the world of education reform (although we do tend to be on the outer edges of looney in many things); in fact, the series of fits and starts that constitute SC’s heaping stumbling-bumbling mess of ineptitude are being replicated all across the U.S. as political manipulation of education collides with Tea Party lunacy.

If we may pause, then, and consider the real problems and the likely solutions: SC has an equity problem in our state and thus in our schools, and accountability/standards/testing do not address those essential equity problems.

SC must step off the accountability Merry-Go-Round, but this latest effort suggests we are enjoying the circus too much to make any reasonable decisions.

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04): A Decade of Forgetting

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, David Zirin highlights a nearly concurrent anniversary:

Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other….

April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.

Pat Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will likely be portrayed as a man in uniform—but not as the man he was:

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04)

And despite his tragic death being the result of “friendly fire,” despite the now exposed political manipulation of Tillman’s service and death, despite the lies—Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will be misrepresented once again—waved like a flag to keep the public’s gaze distracted:

Patriotism?

The truth, however ugly, is available in The Tillman Story (2010), and ESPN offers an Outside the Lines special, Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy.

The Tillman story, ultimately, is a story about us, about the U.S., about the myths that deform. On the tenth anniversary of Tillman’s death, I invite you to read below a post (revised) from 2012.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: There’s a Reason Captain America Wears a Mask

With the release of The Tillman Story (2010), Pat Tillman’s brother, Richard, appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time and offered yet another narrative of Pat’s life and death, one the Tillman family is willing to tell, but one the American public and political leaders are unwilling to ask about or retell.

Richard was frank and struggling on Maher’s HBO show, which included a clip from Pat’s memorial where Richard made a blunt and impassioned effort to tell the truth about his brother in the face of the political need to maintain American Mythology—even when those myths are deceptive, even when those myths are at the expense of people.

Pat Tillman was a stellar athlete who succeeded in college and rose to unique status in the NFL, where he did a very un-American thing, stepped away from a multi-million dollar contract, to do a very American thing, enlist in the military after 9/11 in order to serve his country. The news and political stories of Tillman’s decision played down the apparent rejection of materialism in Tillman’s volunteering to serve in the military, but the official stories began to craft a narrative starring Pat Tillman as Captain America.

Apparently, we could mask a not-so-subtle challenge to our materialistic existence and consumer culture as long as that masked hero would justify our wars.

Then Tillman died in the line of duty.

Then the U.S. government was exposed for building a story around Tillman’s death that was untrue: Pat was killed by “friendly fire” (a disarming term for an incomprehensible and gruesome fact of wars) and not at the hands of the enemy as officials initially claimed—to Pat’s brother who was also serving and nearby, to Pat’s family, and to the entire country.

Then Richard Tillman, still boiling with anger, said on Maher’s show that Pat should have retaliated in order to save himself against the “friendly fire.”

Beyond the continuing chasm between the real life and death of Pat Tillman and the narratives created around him, the release of the Tillman documentary presents the American public with a story that isn’t very flattering. The Tillman Story depends on the ambiguous meaning of “story,” as a synonym for “narrative” and “lie,” to offer another layer to the growing truths and distortions connected with why Pat Tillman joined the military, how he died, and the complex human being who he was.

Captain America and the Mask of Patriotism

Now, if we place the Tillman stories against the debate in the military over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we notice that in this culture we endorse masking reality as a good and even honorable thing. We confront the Great American Myth that never allows us to ask, much less tell.

This military policy based on deception is ironically our central cultural narrative, one political leaders perpetuate since their political success depends upon speaking to our cultural myths instead of to reality. We are a country committed to don’t ask, don’t tell.

Pat Tillman’s life story and the corrupted narrative invented by politicians and the military to hide the truth and propagandize at the expense of a man and his life are tragic and personal myths that we are ignoring still. If political leaders will fabricate preferred stories at the expense of a single person, we can expect the same about the institutions central to our democracy, such as our public education system and teachers.

Such is a disturbing confirmation of the “myths that deform” that Paulo Freire cautioned about in his examination of the failures of “banking” concepts of education.

In this new era of hope and change, the Obama administration, we must be diligent to ask and tell, especially when it comes to our public schools. The false dichotomy of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, is a distraction from the reality of political leaders expressing corporate narratives to ensure the balance of power favoring the status quo. Leaders are often compelled to maintain cultural myths because black-and-white messages are politically effective.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are now leading a renewed assault on public education, and directly teachers, under the banner of civil rights—just as Pat Tillman’s life and death were buried beneath claims of patriotism raised like Captain America’s shield so no one could see behind it.

The reality that Obama and Duncan cannot ask or tell about is poverty—and its impact on the lives and learning of children. Acknowledging poverty is an affront to the American Dream; confronting poverty is political dynamite. Blaming teachers and schools instead without offering the evidence works because this is a message we are willing to acknowledge and hear.

For example, a group from the ruling elite of schools, self-described as “educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America,” placed themselves squarely in the context of President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s charge against teachers and the status quo; their manifesto states: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.” [1]

The names of the leaders—Klein, Rhee, Vallas—appear impressive, and their sweeping claims are compelling—except that the substance of their message is false.

Narratives are powerful, and telling those narratives requires diligence, a willingness to say something often enough to make the created story sound more credible than reality—until the truth is masked beneath a web of narratives that makes truth harder to accept than the lies that seem to conform to all the myths that deform us (rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap, a rising tide lifts all boats).

“Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand” speaks to an American faith in the market. “[U]ntil we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems” triggers Americans’ blind willingness to compete and an enduring faith in schools as tools of social reform. They are compelling because Americans have been saying them for a century.

Just as the fabricated story of Pat Tillman and his sacrifice justified war.

“I don’t believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own” (Walt Gardner) sounds weak, fatalistic, in the face of our myths, the words of soft people eager to shift the blame. It is something we dare not tell.

Just as the smoldering facts of Pat Tillman’s death remain too hard to ask about and too hard to tell.

But only the latter are supported by evidence. But only the latter contradict the Great American Myths about which we dare not ask, we dare not tell.

Captain America wears a mask for a reason: The myth is easier to look at, easier to tell about than the truth hidden underneath—whether we are asking about and looking hard at the death of a complex man, Pat Tillman, or the complex influences of poverty on the lives and learning of children across our country.

[1] See recent evidence to the contrary regarding the claim about zip codes: A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; and Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings.

College Athletes’ Academic Cheating a Harbinger of a Failed System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few additional points inform this consideration.

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

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

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

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

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

The issue of the NCAA is a racial justice issue.

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

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

As Zirin asks, what will be missing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural assumptions are powerful lenses for judging outcomes.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer

Born and raised in a very small rural town in upstate South Carolina, I have lived my entire 53 years in the South. Most of that life has been spent teaching, and a large span of that career was in the high school I attended, among children mostly just like me, where we explored literature.

A key text for me each year was William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and if you are not from the South, and you want to come close to understanding the South, read the story carefully. The shocking revelation at the end of the story—behind the locked door, the pillow and the bed, the “iron-gray hair”—is as close as you can come to understanding the South if you are not from here. (If you want to make a unit of this project to examine the South, read also Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”)

We are a self-defeating people, we Southerners, a sort of ignorant pride, a blind faith in tradition and a steely determination to do as we damn well please. We’d rather cling to our ignorance (a long-standing tradition) than do the right thing—especially if someone else is telling us to do the right thing. The South, you see, is stuck in a perpetual arrested development, a fixed childhood/adolescence: We’re going to smoke, drink, and make out in our own car and there is nothing you can say or do to stop us.

That “we,” however, is the white South (both literally and its controlling psyche), and that is the problem. (One element of “A Rose for Emily” that is important here is the “we” narration of the town. “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral,” it begins.)

So if you think 8 disturbing trends that reveal the South’s battered psyche—which asks, “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?”—helps you understand the South, you need to consider carefully what is absent in the 8 trends:

1. Southern states have the most poor people….

2. Deep South states have no minimum wage….

3. Deep South has lowest economic mobility….

4. South has lowest per capita spending [b]y state government….

5. Forget about decent preventative healthcare….

6. One result: people self-medicate in response….

7. Forget the lottery, just pray to Jesus….

8. And hold onto that gun!

What is essentially absent in this piece, an examination of trends that confuses markers for root causes?

Race, and more directly, racism.

Notably, the piece mentions race in only one place, and then only “white,” with blacks reduced to a negation, not white:

As you would expect, the vast majority of people falling under the poverty line in the poorest states do not have white faces—although there are poor whites. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation compiles state poverty rates by race. In the poorest states, whites account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the poor.

Yes, the piece is examining poverty, but that may be the problem.

“Poverty” is the convenient term in the U.S. that can be uttered as a device for ignoring poverty and denying racism.

Mention the disturbing racial imbalance of drug arrests (whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rates, but blacks suffer the brunt of arrests) or mass incarceration (white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in society, but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons), and the response will invariably turn to the suggestion that poverty is the cause, not racism.

Of course, if mass incarceration were a function of poverty and not racism, since twice as many whites as blacks are in poverty, the prison populations would be two white males to every black male.

So in order to answer why the 8 trends noted above exist, why they are tolerated, we must name and then confront the reason: racism. Racism as a historical scar. Racism as a contemporary and undiagnosed, untreated cancer.

The self-defeating South is the function of right-wing political leadership that campaigns with coded language and images (the infamous Jesse Helms “hands” commercial in his run against Harvey Gantt, for example) and then implements policy along racial lines—even when the consequences of that policy also negatively impacts the large white poverty populations in the South: right-to-work laws, limited social program funding, shrinking funding for public institutions, resisting universal healthcare, lingering calls for breaking the wall between church and state, supporting school choice, ignoring the re-segregation of schools (public, charter, and private), and doubling down on gun access and ownership.

If we are seeking root causes to answer “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?,” we must acknowledge the lingering power of racism and then we must also confront how rurality in the South allows that racism to remain powerful, even though it now is mostly coded (although blatant expressions of racism remain common in the South).

In 2014, we must not discuss inequity and poverty, especially in the context of the South, without also naming the historical and contemporary racism driving many of the consequences of social dynamics and public policy.

“The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust”—Faulkner’s collective narration of “A Rose for Emily” describes the climax of an entire community finally facing the truth.

For the U.S., I would argue, the South is our Emily and we remain unwilling, possibly unable, to break down the door, look at the hair on the pillow and admit that we have skeletons in our closet—racism, both a scar and a cancer we refuse to treat.

Recommended Documentaries

The Loving Story

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

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

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing program in the mid-1990:

MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others.

“The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes” (2012) reveals the following from that program:

These patterns [school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency] have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be “doubly disadvantaged”—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood. (See a full discussion HERE)

The disadvantages of being born poor and then attending public schools in impoverished neighborhoods are far greater than doubled, however. The disadvantages are exponential and involve race, class, and gender.

NPR has presented two brief looks at new analyses from MTO—one directly about Study: Boys Report PTSD When Moved Out Of Poverty, and the other a related story, ‘Prep School Negro’ Shows Struggle Between Poverty And Plenty.

David Green reports on the MTO research:

Now a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that boys from these families did not thrive. They found that the move took a toll on their emotional well being, a toll not experienced by girls….

Professor at Harvard Medical School, Ronald Kessler explains about the research findings:

Well, the hope was originally that the educational opportunities for the kids would increase because of better schools, that the opportunities for the parents finding jobs would increase because they moved to places where there were higher employment rates so that in the long run the kids, as they moved out, would have better socioeconomic achievement than they would have otherwise….

Well, we found something that we hadn’t expected, which was the effect of the intervention was quite positive for girls, but boys had the opposite effect. Boys were more depressed. They were more likely to have post traumatic stress disorder. They were more likely to have conduct problems if they were in families that were offered vouchers than in the control group that wasn’t involved in any kind of move.

Although not part of the WTO experimental group, Andre Robert Lee represents that alienation felt by African American and poor males and identified by Kessler and his team:

I kind of feel like when you’re black, sometimes you have to be twice as good. I was kind of, you know, sad by it, you know. I’m a people person and to go to a school where you can’t be yourself – I was being myself, but people not to embrace you is just – it kind of sucked.

This research and personal experience must be placed in several social and educational contexts.

First, the unique and negative experiences of impoverished males, including impoverished African American males, are complicated by the research on how people view African American children:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at figuring out the extent to which black children were likely to be treated differently than their white peers solely based on race. More specifically, the authors wanted to figure out the extent to which black kids were dehumanized. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” author Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA told the American Psychological Association. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Second, the more specific context of how society sees and treats African American young men is captured in the controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman (and the coded use of “thug”) and Marcus Smart.

Third, the Office for Civil Rights (USDOE) has detailed that in-school discipline policies and retention are disproportional by gender and race, and that access to high-quality courses and experienced teachers is also inequitable. “No excuses” practices and zero tolerance policies tend to target high-poverty and racial minority students as well:

There is abundant evidence that zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect youth of color. Nationally, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Among middle school students, black youth are suspended nearly four times more often than white youth, and Latino youth are roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth. And because boys are twice as likely as girls to receive these punishments, the proportion of black and Latino boys who are suspended or expelled is especially large.  Nationally, nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009–10 school year. Part of this dynamic is that under-resourced urban schools with higher populations of black and Latino students are generally more likely to respond harshly to misbehavior. (p. 3)

Fourth, the race, class, and gender inequity found in school discipline is replicated and intensified in the mass incarceration of African American males in the U.S.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the historical context must be addressed. Consider first James Baldwin speaking in 1963, Take This Hammer:

And also, consider Baldwin writing in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung 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. 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. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies.

How much different, then, is our world when we listen carefully to Lee:

Yeah, it’s hard. And when a kid walks in and they’re immediately seen as a delinquent, that perception and notion is thrust upon a person immediately. Despite the fact that I’m quote-unquote successful and have a career and have a graduate degree, you know, I still have a darn hard time getting a cab, and this is even if I’m in a suit or not.

If you’re not a really strong person, it can destroy you ’cause it’s constant chipping away at your psyche, you know, and I realized this in 9th grade. I thought there’s inequity in the world and it’s not going to change. What am I going to do?

The conclusions about impoverished males drawn from the WTO experiment and Lee’s personal story suggest that Baldwin’s warnings remain disturbingly true:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’”; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

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. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

The disadvantage of being impoverished, African American, and male remains powerfully staggering, far beyond “doubly” and something we seem unable to confront much less address.

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