“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who argues:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Zinn recognized:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VAM Remedy Part of Inequity Disease

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

In Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), Edward H. Haertel draws an important conclusion about value-added methods of evaluating teachers built on standardized tests: “Tests aligned to grade-level standards cannot fully register the academic progress of students far above grade level or far below grade level,” and thus create a “bias against those teachers working with the lowest performing or the highest performing classes,” adding:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (pp. 8, 24)

All of these consequences of high-stakes testing and VAM, then, are likely to impact negatively high-poverty and minority students, who disproportionately score low on such tests.

Matthew Di Carlo’s new examination of VAM in DC reinforces Haertel’s concern:

Specifically, you’ll notice that almost 30 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive the highest rating (“highly effective”), compared with just 7-10 percent in the other categories. In addition, just over seven percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive one of the two lowest ratings (“minimally effective” or “ineffective,” both of which may result in dismissal), versus 18-21 percent in the medium- and high-poverty schools.

So, the relationship between school poverty and IMPACT ratings may not be linear, as the distributions for medium- and high-poverty schools are quite similar. Nevertheless, it seems very clear that IMPACT results are generally better among teachers in schools serving lower proportions of poor students (i.e., students eligible for subsidized lunch), and that the discrepancies are quite large.

High-poverty schools already share some disturbing characteristics, including that they often reflect and perpetuate the inequities found in the homes and communities of the children they serve (see HERE and HERE). But high-poverty schools also struggle to attract and retain experienced and certified/qualified teachers.

And while virtually no one advocates for using VAM in high-stakes policies, mounting evidence shows that VAM is likely to further deter teachers from the schools and students most needing high-quality dedicated teachers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and then Common Core have been sold to the public as policy intended to close the so-called achievement gap (a misnomer for the equity gap; see HERE and HERE)—just as advocates of VAM have attributed school failure to “bad” teachers and VAM as a way to rid schools of those “bad” teachers, again to address the achievement gap.

However, the evidence refutes the rhetoric because accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, Common Core, and VAM have not and will not address equity, but are likely to increase the exact problems advocates claim they will solve (see Mathis, 2012Hout & Elliot, 2011Haertel, 2013; Di Carlo, 2014).

If left unchecked, VAM as a education reform remedy will prove to be yet another part of the inequity disease.

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

Posted at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled, college instructor Rick Diguette offers a grim picture of first year college writing:

Once upon a time I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall.  But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I read this just after I had been mulling Jessica Lahey’s What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator, and I recognize in both pieces several overlapping concerns that deserve greater consideration as well as some warranted push back.

“Students Today…”

Let me first frame my response by noting that I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina—where I focused heavily on student writing—and now have been in teacher education for an additional 13 years. My primary role is to prepare future English teachers, but I also serve as the university Faculty Director for First Year Seminars, and thus support the teaching of writing at my university.

In both Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces, we must confront a problematic although enduring sense that “students today” are somehow fundamentally different than students in the past, and that difference is always that “students today” are worse. Students today can’t even write a complete sentence (Diguette), and students today are cheating like there is no tomorrow (Lahey).

This sort of “students today” crisis discourse fails us, I believe, because it is fundamentally skewed by our tendency to be nostalgic about the past as well as by shifting far too much focus on lamenting conditions instead of addressing them.

I offer, then, a broad response to both Diguette’s and Lahey’s central points: Let’s not address student writing and plagiarism/cheating as if these are unique or fundamentally worse concerns for teachers and education in 2014 than at any other point in modern U.S. education.

And for context, especially regarding students as writers, I offer the work of Lou LaBrant on teaching writing (see sources below) and my own examination of teaching writing built on LaBrant’s work; in short:

In “Writing Is More than Structure,” LaBrant (1957) says that “an inherent quality in writing is responsibility for what is said. There is therefore a moral quality in the composition of any piece” (p. 256). For LaBrant, the integrity of the content of a student’s writing outweighs considerably any surface features. In that same article, she offers a metaphor that captures precisely her view of the debate surrounding the teaching of writing—a debate that has persisted in the English field throughout this century: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (p. 256)….

…LaBrant sought ultimately through writing instruction the self-actualized literate adult, the sophisticated thinker. She never wavered in her demand that writing instruction was primarily concerned with making sincere and valuable meaning—not as a means to inculcate a set of arbitrary and misleading rules, rules that were static yet being imposed on a language in flux.

Lou LaBrant remained paradoxically rigid in her stance: The writing curriculum had to be open-ended and child-centered; the content of writing came first, followed by conforming to the conventions; and English teachers had to be master writers, master descriptive grammarians, and historians of the language. It all seemed quite obvious to her, since she personified those qualities that she demanded. LaBrant was one of many who embodied the debates that surround the field of teaching English, and she left writing teachers with one lingering question: Do we want our students drawing blueprints or building houses? The answer is obvious. (pp. 85, 89)

Instead of framing student writing and plagiarism, then, within crisis discourse, we must view the teaching of writing and the need to instill scholarly ethics in our students as fundamental and enduring aspects of teaching at every level of formal schooling. In other words, the problems in student work we encounter as teachers—such as garbled claims; shoddy grammar, mechanics, and usage; improperly cited sources; plagiarism—are simply the foundations upon which we teach.

Along with the essential flaw of viewing “students today” as inferior to students of the past, the urge to lament that students come to any of us poorly prepared by those who taught them before is also misleading and more distraction.

We certainly could and should do a better job moving students along through formal education (see my discussion of common experiences versus standards), but the simple fact is that each teacher must take every student where she/he is and then move that student forward as well as possible. Formal standards and implied expectations about where all students should be mean little in the real world where our job as teachers is bound to each student’s background, proclivities, and all the contexts that support or impede that student’s ability to grow and learn.

Now, before moving on, let me introduce another point about our perceptions of how and when students “learn” literacy. Consider the common view of children learning to read by third grade, for example. As reported at NPR, this widespread assumption that students acquire reading by third (or any) grade is flawed because children and adults continue to evolve as readers (and writers) in ways that defy neat linear categories.

As educator professor and scholar Peter Smagorinsky notes in his response to Diguette, “Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.”

On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

None of what I have offered so far relieves teachers of this truth: All students need (deserve) writing instruction and that must include serious considerations of proper citations as well as focusing on the ethical implications of being a scholar and a writer (and citizen, of course).

And while I disagree with claims that “students today” are fundamentally worse writers or more prone to plagiarism than students in the past, I do recognize that we can expose why students perform as they do as writers and why students plagiarize and settle for shoddy citation.

Whether we are concerned about the claims or organization in a student writing sample, the surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage), faulty attribution of citations, or outright plagiarism, a central root cause of those issues can be traced to the current thirty-years cycle of public school accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Smagorinsky does, I want to urge anyone concerned about student writing to consider the conclusions drawn by Applebee and Langer regarding the teaching of writing in middle and high school (see my review at Teachers College Record).

Applebee and Langer present a truly disheartening examination of the consequences related to the accountability era as they impact student writing: Although teachers are more aware than ever of best practices in the teaching of writing (due in no small part to the rise of the National Writing Project in the 1970s and 1980s), throughout middle and high school, students are not writing in ways that foster their abilities to generate original ideas; establish, support, and elaborate on credible claims; and polish writing that conforms to traditional conventions for language.

The primary reasons behind this failure are not “bad” teachers or lazy/stupid students, but the demands linked to high-stakes accountability. Just as one example, please consider Thomas Newkirk’s challenge to the unintended and corrosive consequences of writing being added to the SAT in 2005.

The writing section of the SAT has negatively impacted the teaching of writing in the following ways, all of which can be found in contexts related to preparing students for other high-stakes testing situations related to state-based accountability (although NCTE warned about these consequences from the beginning):

  • Writing (composition) is reduced to what can be tested in multiple-choice format. In other words, students are being taught and assessed for writing in ways that are not composing. Here we have the central failure of allowing testing formats to correlate with holistic performances, and thus, students are not invited or allowed to spend the needed time for developing those holistic performances (composing). See LaBrant (1953) “Writing Is Learned by Writing.”
  • Students write primarily or exclusively from detailed prompts and rubrics assigned by teachers or formulated by test designers. Ultimately, by college, few students have extended experiences with confronting the wide range of decisions that writers make in order to form credible and coherent ideas into a final written form. If many college students cannot write as well as professors would like, the reason is likely that many of those students have never had the opportunity to write in ways that we expect for college students. Students have been drilled in writing for the Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and state accountability tests, but those are not the types of thinking and writing needed by young scholars.
  • Students have not experienced extended opportunities to draft original essays over a long period of time while receiving feedback from their teachers and peers; in other words, students have rarely experienced workshop opportunities because teachers do not have the time for such practices in a high-stakes environment that is complicated by budget cut-backs resulting in enormous class sizes that are not conducive to effective writing instruction.

The more productive and credible approach to considering why students write poorly or drift into plagiarism, then, is to confront the commitments we have made to education broadly. The accountability era put a halt to best practice in writing for our teachers and students so we should not be shocked about what college professors see when first year students enter their classes.

But another source of shoddy student writing must not be ignored.

Within that larger context of accountability, student writing that is prompted tends to have much weaker characteristics (content as well as surface features including proper citation) than writing for which students have genuine engagement (see the work of George Hillocks, for example). In other words, while students are not composing nearly enough in their K-12 experiences (and not receiving adequate direct instruction of writing at any formal level), when students do write, the assignments tend to foster the worst sorts of weaknesses highlighted by Diguette and Lahey.

Shoddy ideas and careless editing as well as plagiarism are often the consequences of assigned writing about which students do not care and often do not understand. (Higher quality writing and reducing plagiarism [Thomas, 2007] can be accomplished by student choice and drafting original essays over extended time with close monitoring by the teacher, by the way.)

And this leads back to my main argument about how to respond to both Diguette and Lahey: As teachers in K-12 and higher education, we have a moral obligation to teach students to be writers and to be ethical. Period.

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter why students struggle with writing or plagiarism at any level of formal education because we must address those issues when students enter our rooms, and we must set aside the expectation that students come to us “fixed.”

In other words, like most of education, learning to write and polishing ones sense of proper citation as well as the ethical demands of expression are life-long journeys, not goals anyone ever finishes.

However, in the current high-stakes accountability era of K-12 education—and the likelihood this is spreading to higher education—I must concur with Smagorinsky:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.

And I will add that if college professors want students who write well and ethically, they (we) must commit to continuing to teach writing throughout any students formal education—instead of lamenting when those students don’t come to us already “fixed.”

Writing and ethical expression have never been addressed in formal schooling in the ways they deserve; both have been mostly about technical details and domains of punishment. The current accountability era has reinforced those traditional failures.

I find Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces both very important and seriously dangerous because they are likely to result in more misguided “blaming the victims” in that too many of the conclusions drawn about why students write poorly and often plagiarize remain focused on labeling teachers and students as flawed.

That students write poorly and often plagiarize is evidence of systemic failures, first and foremost. In order for the outcomes—effective and ethical student writers—to occur, then, we all must change the conditions and expectations of formal education, including understanding that all teachers are obligated to identify our students strengths and needs in order to start there and see how far we can go.

Final Thoughts: Adult Hypocrisy

Many of you may want to stop now. The above is my sanitized response, but it isn’t what I really want to say so here goes.

If you wonder why students write poorly and too often plagiarize, I suggest you stroll into whatever room has the biggest mirror and look for a moment.

As someone who is a writer and editor, I work daily with scholars and other writers who submit work far more shoddy than my students submit.

And as an increasingly old man, I witness the adult world that is nothing like the idealized and ridiculous expectations we level moment by moment on children.

Plagiarism? You too can become vice president of the U.S.!

Lazy student? You can become president of the U.S.!

Now, I absolutely believe we must have high expectations for our students, including a nuanced and powerful expectation for ethical behavior, but many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet. The adults in the U.S. (especially if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are a man) play a much different ethical game than what we tell children.

Children see through such bunkum and that teaches a much different lesson that doesn’t do any of us any good.

For Further Reading

The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?, Thomas Newkirk

On Children and Childhood

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

References

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About IntegrationThe English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writingElementary English27(4), 261-265.

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P. L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P. L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

From the beginning of the call for and debate about Common Core, I have taken a clear stand against the promise of standards-based reform; for example, Why Common Standards Won’t Work:

A call for national standards ensures that we continue doing what is most wrong with our bureaucratic schools (establish-prescribe-measure) and that we persist in looking away from the largest cause of low student achievement: childhood poverty.

A call for national standards is a political veneer, a tragic waste of time and energy that would be better spent addressing real needs in the lives of children—safe homes, adequate and plentiful food, essential health care, and neighborhood schools that are not reflections of the neighborhoods where children live through no choice of their own.

Education is in no way short of a knowledge base. And even if it were, tinkering (yet again) at a standard core of knowledge while ignoring the dehumanizing practices in our schools, and the oppressive impact of poverty on the lives of children, is simply more fiddling while the futures of our children smolder over our shoulders and we look the other way.

So with the news of Oklahoma and my home state of South Carolina dropping Common Core, you’d think I would feel vindicated, but the truth is that if you dig beneath the (mostly partisan) policy moves to separate states from the Common Core movement, you find that those states maintain a robust and misguided commitment to all the reasons we should be dropping the Common Core.

For example, we must recognize that SC, specifically but as a typical example, is directly rejecting Common Core as a federal and thus flawed set of standards while continuing to develop and implement policy to design (yet again) new SC standards, new SC high-stakes testing, and new SC accountability—all of which are the essential structures that are ineffective.

The problem for education reform, then, is not specifically Common Core, but that the evidence base shows standards-based reform has not and will not address issues of equity or achievement.

As a parallel example of how most of the current education reform commitments simply do not and cannot address the fundamental problems facing education, consider that New Orleans has now replaced the entire public school system with charter schools; the result?:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

The partisan political backlash against Common Core, then, is not reason to celebrate because the essential political commitments to misguided education reform policy (such as accountability built on standards and testing, charter schools, Teach For America, and value-added methods of teacher evaluation) remain robust below the partisan posturing against Common Core as a uniquely flawed set of standards.

Adopting and implementing Common Core and the related high-stakes testing and accountability mechanisms are tremendous wastes of time and money that we cannot afford. Yes, let’s stop Common Core, but as a key step to stopping the entire flawed education reform movement built on ever-new standards and tests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SC Senate approves replacing Common Core in 1 year

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

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

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

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

[Insert wah-wah-wah]

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

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

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

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

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

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