Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Published from Routledge

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Foreword: Education and the Epochal Crisis Peter McLaren

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity

1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst

2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds

3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover

4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen

Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger

6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey

7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora

Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas

9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep

10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen

11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris Leahey

Conclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition

At This Week in Poverty, Greg Kaufmann offers Anti-Poverty Leaders Discuss the Need for a Shared Agenda. Taking a similar pose, Diane Ravitch offers her reasoned “dissent” to my post, Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage, explaining at the end:

My advice to Paul Thomas, whose sense of outrage I share, is to embrace coalition politics. When the white moms and dads realize they are in the same situation as the black and Hispanic moms and dads, they become a force to be reckoned with. The coalition of diverse groups is a source of political power that will benefit children and families of all colors and conditions.

Both pieces raise an important element in the education reform debates, especially as that overlaps with efforts to address and eradicate poverty and inequity: Failure in education and equity reform has be driven by commitments to competition models instead of embracing collaboration and coalitions. To that, I offer the following:

Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition

Since the mid- to late-1800s, and especially over the past thirty years, public education has experienced a constant state of reform that can be characterized by one disturbing conclusion—none of that reform appears to work (or, at least, political leaders and the media stay committed, often in conjunction, to that claim).

Despite massive political, public, and financial commitments to creating better schools in the U.S., most people remain concerned that education is not achieving its promise. While debates often focus on issues related to state-to-state or international comparisons of test scores, we have also struggled with issues of equity, such as high drop-out rates and achievement gaps (see HERE and HERE).

Ultimately, the failure of decades of education reform is likely that we have committed to in-school-only reform. “No excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” represent educational policy such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and calls for tougher standards (Common Core) and next-generation tests. Education consultant Grant Wiggins defends this in-school-only focus: “Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control.”

Since three decades of standards-based and test-driven accountability have resulted in the current call for different standards and tests, we are poised at a moment when in-school-only reform and competition models such as school choice and Race to the Top must be examined as part of the problem. Instead, education reform must be an act of collaboration that addresses directly both social and educational reform. That collaboration model should begin by acknowledging that we are failing both the historical promise of public education and the call in No Child Left Behind to create scientifically-based education reform. For example, consider just two powerful research-based reasons to change course.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the importance of social reform as a powerful mechanism for educational reform: “The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.”

And Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much show that—despite the in-school reform argument for students needing “grit”—people in abundance succeed because of slack, not grit, and those same people would struggle in scarcity.

Education reform, then, needs to shift away from in-school-only commitments and competition, thus seeking ways in which the lives and schools of children can create the slack all children deserve so that their grit can matter.

Closing Gaps?: Addressing Privilege and Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privilege is a safety net, poverty is a prison.

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

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

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

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

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

The Commons are potentially the collective ethics of a people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to my being wrong.

The MLK Imperative in an Era of “No Excuses”

My father was a hard-ass, €”a Southern version of the Red Forman-type made popular in That 70’s Show. I grew up, then, in a “no excuses” environment rooted in the 1950s work ethic my father personified. [1]*

Mine was a working-class background: My paternal grandfather (for whom I was named) ran the small-town gas station where I grew up, and my maternal grandfather worked in the yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina.

Way before the “no excuses” ideology consumed the education reform movement of the 21st century, “no excuses” ruled my childhood and teen years. My behavior at home and school? No excuses. My academic achievement? No excuses.

Two important realizations, however, stem from that childhood and young adulthood of mine.

First, most of my academic, scholarly, and personal success occurred in spite of (not because of) that “no excuses” upbringing.

And second, in retrospect I recognize that the central element in that success, feeding my working-class roots, was enormous privilege driven by the coincidences of my being male, white, and possessing the academic acumen preferred by social and educational norms.

Privilege, Humility, and Community

Nestled somewhat silently and invisibly beneath the “no excuses” atmosphere of my childhood was two wonderfully loving parents €”and a culture of literacy that can clearly be identified as the source of my academic success.

The line from Dr. Seuss to Kurt Vonnegut is being necessarily oversimplified here, but from my earliest recollections, I loved reading and books. And by my late adolescence and young adulthood, I became an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, through whom I came to know alternative views of history (Sacco and Vanzetti by way of Jailbird, for example).

The most powerful lesson I have drawn from Vonnegut, however, has been the words, life, and actions of Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

From Debs I have come to understand that anyone’s privilege is the foundation for humility, not arrogance (no “I deserve this unlike others” attitude), and that all people bestowed with privilege should feel compelled to work diligently for the equity of others, with Debs’ works and life serving as models.

The key to that understanding of and praxis drawn from privilege is my embracing critical pedagogy:

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. (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)

My critical commitment, then, to equity is grounded in my work as an educator and scholar as well as my foundational focus on democracy, equity, and agency.

And it is there that I now turn to examining the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative in an era of “no excuses.”

Claim One: Poverty and Privilege Are Destiny

“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”

While this and other slogans are culturally compelling, factually in the U.S., poverty is destiny, and that reality is often as much linked to socioeconomic status as race.

Some acknowledgement exists for the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues poor and minority students; for example, the Justice Department in Mississippi has concluded, as Ferriss reports:

The suit alleges that the state, county and city “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,” said a Department of Justice press release.  “As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, I fear, is ultimately an inadequate metaphor for the current “no excuses” policies in many high-poverty and high-minority public and charter schools that are better described with schools-as-prisons.To understand the need to change the metaphor, we must first acknowledge that in the U.S. white males outnumber Latino and African American males about 3 to 1, but in U.S. prisons, Latino and African American males outnumber white males about 10 to 1.

The race and class implications of the causes behind these data are captured, I think, in James Baldwin’s assessment in “No Name in the Street” (1972):

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….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….€

The blurring of public institutions used for control instead of their democratic purposes has been questioned by Michel Foucault:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (Discipline & Punish, 1975)

The evidence that poverty is destiny is disturbingly reflected in our schools. Pre-kindergarten expulsions—€”overwhelmingly male and then disproportionately African American males—€”foreshadow our imprisonment inequities; and our “no excuses” school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, have directly transformed the school-to-prison pipelines into schools-as-prisons:

These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond….

Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling. Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways

While “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) issued a manifesto claiming that a child’s ZIP code does not determine access to educational quality, several recent studies show that ZIP code determines a child’s school [2], and then that school’s policies and quality further entrench that child’s future. For many African American males, ZIP code determines school quality and then that school experience is both like prison and a precursor to prison.These damning facts associated with schools, however, are but microcosms of larger social inequities. The U.S. is no longer a model of social mobility (Sawhill & MortonNorton & Ariely), and the U.S. ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrialized countries in the percentage of childhood poverty, well over 20%.

Public schools in the U.S. fail in two ways that are masked by claims that “poverty is not destiny” and school reform alone will allow schools to reform society: (1) Schools reflect the inequities of the wider society, and (2) schools perpetuate social inequities.

One of the most powerful examples of how schools reflect society is that student achievement is correlated between 60% and over 80% with out-of school factors (BerlinerJoseph Rowntree Foundation, ETS 2007 and 2009).

Yet, the current agenda coming from the NER remains blind to social realities and the inadequacy of their reform agenda, as Berliner explains:

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.

Claim Two: “No Excuses” Reform Entrenches Status Quo of Inequity

The discourse of NER has successfully framed a “failed public schools” narrative that receives the shorthand “status quo.” A central part of that narrative is built on the argument that school reform alone can change society, but these claims, in fact, create a logic problem for NER: For schools to change society (and for which there is no evidence this has ever happened), those schools must be unlike the society, yet both public schools and NER mirror and perpetuate social inequities:

Public School Problem
“No Excuses”€ Reform
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-under-certified teachers
Assign poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified)
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Common Core State Standards linked to new tests to create a standards-based testing and accountability system
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Federal government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Rename high-poverty schools “academy”€ or “€œmagnet”€ schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “€œno excuses” charters named “€œhope”€ or “€œpromise”€ [see above]
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Erase experienced teachers and replace with inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits [see above]
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned to teachers rewarded for teaching 40-1 student-teacher ratio classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Poor and Latino/Black students segregated into test-prep charter schools; special needs and ELL students disregarded [left for public schools to address; €”see column to the left]
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Teacher preparation rejected at the expense of content and pedagogy
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education [most of whom have no experience as educators] misinform and mishandle education
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above]: Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above and the column to the left]: NER reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society

For example, the opting out of NCLB policy under the Obama administration successfully combines the failures of traditional public schooling with the failures of “no excuses” ideology, notably the senseless consequences of the NCLB waiver in New Jersey:

Demographic Composition of New Jersey’s Priority, Focus and Reward Schools

Classification
# of Schools
Black/Latino
Free/Reduced Lunch
ELL
Student Mobility Rate
Priority
75
97%
81%
7%
24%
Focus
183
72%
63%
10%
15%
Reward
112
20%
15%
2%
5%

NER advocates depend on a narrative maintaining a focus on a fabricated status quo of failed public education in order to continue the same failures of that status quo under the mask of NER.

Claim Three: Social Context Reform Seeks Equity

While often discredited by NER narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers (SCR) are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argues SCR.

SCR is committed to the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:

“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Instead of calling again for indirectly addressing inequity and poverty (NER), SCR seeks to reform directly both society and education:

Social Context Reform
Social Commitments to Equity
School-based Commitments to Equity
Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children
End high-stakes testing and accountability; implement teacher/school autonomy and transparency (what schools offer and how v. student outcomes)
Childhood family food security
End labeling and sorting students
Stable and well-paying work for families (reform healthcare so jobs and healthcare are not linked); increase worker’s right and empowerment
Insure equitable teacher assignments
Re-commit to fully funding and supporting universal public education
Confront inequitable discipline policies and outcomes related to race, gender, and class
Insure universal public college access for all students
Reject the traditional deficit perspectivedriving public schooling and reflecting cultural deficit view of poverty
Honor and support school, teacher, and student AUTONOMY (current accountability culture is about complianceanti-democratic)

The King imperative, address poverty and inequity directly, must be acknowledged and embraced; the first step to direct action is to unmask the paradoxes of NER.

Ellison and Baldwin Speak to the King Imperative

Ralph Ellison’s address to teachers in 1963 exposes that social and educational failures have been historically intertwined, as he confronted “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.”

Ellison asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” concluding:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Embedded in the narratives of Ellison, and James Baldwin (see blow), are the threads that show education is not experiencing a crisis, but a systemic reality of the inequity in the culture and institutions of the U.S. We have no “achievement gap,” but we do have an equity gap that metrics such as the “achievement gap” reflect. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” an allegory of privilege, exposes that privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery. (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

This SF allegory is the story of the U.S., the story of ignoring the oppressed child that our privilege depends on by acknowledging “it,” or simply walking away.

As James Baldwin states in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” (1948): “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….”

NER in education maintains the idealism that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the rugged individualism myth in order to pursue the King imperative that we seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform that is then wedded to educational reform.

We must no longer justify inequity with our privilege, and taking an objective, apolitical pose is a “walking away” we can no longer afford.

Direct action is the only solution to the problem of inequity.

* This is a reposting from October 27, 2012, in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

[1] This blog is a narrative/expository version of a talk I delivered at the University of Arkansas on 18 October 2012; you can view the presentation PP here.

[2] See (a) “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; (b) The Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools”; and (c) “Is Demography Still Destiny?” from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.