The edited volume Social Context Reform has an anticipated publication date from Routledge of 15 May 2014. I hope you’ll keep this work on your radar as an alternative to the current “No Excuses” Reform agenda.
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.
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:
- We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
- Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
- 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.
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. *
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.
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 , 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 & Morton; Norton & 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 (Berliner, Joseph 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 “magnet” schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “no excuses” charters named “hope” or “promise” [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
# of Schools
Student Mobility Rate
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 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 compliance, anti-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 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.
 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.
UNDER CONTRACT with Routledge
* If you would like to contribute to this volume as a “late” addition, email firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.
Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity
Editors: P. L. Thomas, Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr
The last decade of the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for misguided political and popular commitments to universal public education in the United States: A technocratic and bureaucratic vision of teaching and learning based on a banking concept of curriculum and a test-based reduction of learning. The Committee of Ten identified public school’s failure to provide a challenging curriculum and established a more than century-long focus on curriculum, content, and standards as the locus of authority in public schooling. The educational reforms enacted in the United States have also found significant resonance within the international community, despite there being a skeptical perception regarding how the US has failed or under-performed in many areas of education.
Throughout the early to mid-twentieth century, humanists (re-enforcing the focus on content) and educators won the battle for the American curriculum (Kliebard, 1995); thus entrenching, for all of public education, the pursuit of a fixed and culturally norming curriculum and a narrow version of scientific education built on tests, labeling, ranking, and sorting. By the mid- to late-twentieth century, Freire (1993) and other critical educators such as Kincheloe (2001, 2002) (along with some progressive, constructivist educators) began to challenge the banking model of education but these critical voices—like the progressive influences of Dewey and others throughout the twentieth century—were at the margins, and completely absent from policy debates (Kohn, 2008).
The publication of, and misreporting about, A Nation at Risk (1983) under Ronald Reagan codified further, through state government, the commitment to standards while adding an intensification of testing as central to the supposed accountability paradigm. Within in two decades, the passing of the No Child Left Behind legislation under George W. Bush added federalization to the notion of accountability.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s administration simultaneously spoke against the past thirty years of accountability, and implemented policies that perpetuated and mirrored the policies Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared to criticize in their public comments. The notion of accountability is pivotal in the debate on education reform because of how it has been conceptualized. Giroux (2004, 2007, 2009, & 2010), McLaren (2006, 2008, 2009), Carr (2008, 2010), Carr and Porfilio (2009, 2011), Porfilio (2012), Thomas (2012, 2011) & Gorlewski (add references) have all critiqued the thinness and allegiance to a highly functionalist form of accountability in these education reforms, often obfuscating the importance of democracy, citizenship and social justice.
The result is that in 2012 both the status quo of public education and the “No Excuses” Reform (NER) rhetoric and policies are identical. NER offers a popular and compelling narrative based on the meritocracy and rugged individualism myths that are supposed to define American idealism.
This volume will refute the NER ideology by proposing Social Context Reform (SCR), a term coined by Thomas to distinguish evidence-based systemic reform endorsed by educators and scholars from NER endorsed by corporate and political leadership:
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, 2011, December 30)
Throughout the accountability era since the early 1980s, policy, public discourse, media coverage, and scholarly works have focused primarily, if not exclusively, on reforming schools themselves. Here, the evidence that school-only reform does not work is combined with a bold argument to expand the discourse and policy surrounding education reform to include how social, school, and classroom reform must work in unison to achieve goals of democracy, equity, and opportunity both in and through public education.
The volume will include a wide variety of essays from leading critical scholars from several fields of study addressing the complex elements of SCR, divided into three sections all of which address the need to re-conceptualize accountability, and, moreover, to seek equity and opportunity in social and education reform.
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
Section I: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity
Chapter 1 – “Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student,” Allison L. Hurst
Chapter 2 – “Reforming the Schooling of Zombie Desire,” William Reynolds
Chapter 3 – “The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: The Denial of Democracy, Citizenship, and Social Justice,” Randy Hoover
Chapter 4 – “Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible,” Barbara Madeloni, Kysa Nygreen
Section II: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity
Chapter 5 – “Social Context and School Underperformance in Inuit Schooling,” Paul Berger
Chapter 6 – “An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools,” Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson & Christopher J. Frey
Chapter 7 – “Educate Youth of Color, Do Not Criminalize Them,” Mary Christianakis and Richard Mora
Section III: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity
Chapter 8 – “A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity: Literacy, Not Standards,” P. L. Thomas
Chapter 9 – “YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom,” Nicholas D. Hartlep
Chapter 10 – “Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education,” Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen
Chapter 11- “Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum,” Chris Leahy
Conclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity, P. L. Thomas
I just read and reviewed Hope against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by Sarah Carr, to be released February 26, 2013. I urge you to pre-order it.
Books on education tend to be deeply misguided and self-promoting or trapped in the “miracle” school/ “no excuses” memes that also dominate flawed education reform.
Diane Ravitch’s recent and upcoming books as well as Kathleen Nolan’s Police in the Hallways are rare exceptions.
I am surprised, then, and eager to recommend Carr’s wonderful narrative of post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans, a crucible of the keynotes of the newest reform movement invested in charter schools and Teach for America.
If you are skeptical of the new reforms and frustrated with the status quo of public education’s failure to address children and neighborhoods most in need, Carr’s book is a perfect story of three people living the reality of both.
See an excerpt at The Atlantic: “The Real Reason More Low-Income Students Don’t Go to College”
While reading, I also compiled a companion reading list, below:
Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan
“More Challenges to Kirp’s ‘Miracle’ Narrative,” @ The Chalk Face, P. L. Thomas
“Final Words of Advice,” “Where Do We Go from Here?” Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)
Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit
“Murky Waters: The Education Debate in New Orleans,” Truthout, Adam Bessie and Dan Archer
“The Teaching Profession as a Service Industry,” Daily Censored, P. L. Thomas
“Is There a Christmas Miracle in School Reform Debate?” The Answer Sheet/The Washington Post, P. L. Thomas
“Unpacking TFA Support: Twisted Logic and Assumptions,” Schools Matter, P. L. Thomas
“Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity,” the becoming radical, P. L. Thomas
“Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse,” the becoming radical, P. L. Thomas
“Reconsidering Education ‘Miracles,’” OpEdNews, P. L. Thomas
“The New Layoff Formula Project,” The Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo
The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Woodson
“Poor Teaching for Poor Children in the Name of Reform,” Education Week, Alfie Kohn
“The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching,” Phi Delta Kappan, Martin Haberman
“’They’re All Our Children,’” AlterNet, P. L. Thomas
“Final Words of Advice,” “Where Do We Go From Here?” — Martin Luther King Jr.
“The MLK Imperative in an Era of ‘No Excuses’” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Censored
“‘They’re All Our Children’” — P. L. Thomas @ AlterNet
“The Polonius Chronicles: The Invisible Hand and the King Imperative” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Censored
“Organizations, No, Community, Yes: MLK Jr. Day 2012” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Kos
“21st Century Segregation: Inverting King’s Dream” — P. L. Thomas @ Truthout
“Diversity and the Rise of Majority-Minority Schools” — P. L. Thomas @ Truthout
“What These Children Are Like” — Ralph Ellison
“A Talk to Teachers” — James Baldwin
Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.
So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:
National high-stakes tests built on CCSS
Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking
Teach for America
These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.
For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.
The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:
Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.
Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:
This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.
I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.
For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.
And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:
Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.
The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.
Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.
As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:
[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.
Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:
As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….
The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.
Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.
The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.
Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):
The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible….
[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes….
The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish….
In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)
Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:
The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.
In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.
Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.
Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.
But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.
The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.
As compelling as “miracle” schools and “no excuses” ideologies remain in political and public discourse, careful and evidence-based examinations of both repeatedly show that the rhetoric is a mask for corporate-style reform agendas that ignore and perpetuate inequity—instead of confronting inequity.
See this review from NEPC [see press release at Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice]:
REVIEW OF FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
Summary of Review
This Public Agenda report profiles nine high-poverty schools in Ohio that the authors believe have exhibited “sustained success.” It first lists 11 commonly accepted attributes they assert are demonstrated across the profiled schools. The report then offer s six general recommendations for other schools to achieve and sustain success, although the connection between the attributes and the recommendations is unclear. How these “key attributes” and subsequent recommendations were derived from the interviews is not specified. The school selection criteria suggests sample bias. Six of the nine schools were from a state “schools of promise” list and three were not. Four of the schools’ poverty levels were near the state average, belying the high-poverty claim in the report’s title. The report’s biggest deficiency is that, while it is presented as addressing equity needs, and the interviewees pointed out that poverty related factors must be addressed, the recommendations fail to propose remedies or explicitly address these factors. This omission puts the report precariously close to the discredited “no excuses” genre. The common sense nature of the recommendations will likely be found acceptable to many readers, but the proposals are not sufficiently grounded in either the study’s own data or in the larger body of research. In sum, these shortcomings marginalize the work’s usefulness in advancing school reform and educational equity.
Note “The Delusional Contradictions of ‘No Excuses’ Reform and Poverty,” P. L. Thomas, EduSanity
October 10, 2012
EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.
There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”
The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.
Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in hisFinal Words of Advice: “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.”
And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.
• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.
• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.
• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).
• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.
• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).
• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.
• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choice. Charter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how 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)
NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.
Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/10/the-delusional-contradictions-of-no-excuses-reform-and-poverty/