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

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Gary Rubinstein: “TFA…thrives on greed, deception, and fear”

Gary Rubinstein’s Advice to the 2014 TFA Corps Members is, I assume, intended for TFA recruits directly and about specifically TFA as a reform agenda.

Thus, I do first recommend that those drawn to TFA should read carefully, and then heed Rubinstein’s words, notably this:

TFA 2But I am compelled to go further and note that Rubinstein’s central point is also applicable to the entire education reform agenda built on accountability (standards and high-stakes tests), value added methods for evaluating teachers, and charter schools.

The loudest and most frequent advocates of these policies thrive on greed, deception, and fear. Period.

So everyone should listen to Rubinstein, and not just about TFA, but about everything Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and their ilk stand for.

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

In 2011, 3,764,698,318 retail prescriptions were filled in the U.S. If 0.01% of those prescriptions were filled incorrectly (and thus jeopardizing the health or even lives of patients, including children), 376,469 events could have constituted the danger of tolerating “bad” pharmacists.

Every day, patients are also served by doctors and surgeons who completed their degrees at the bottom of their classes.

Just how many “bad” doctors and “bad” surgeons are we willing to tolerate?

But in the scope of political and media scrutiny, it appears the greatest danger facing our children and society is the ever-present “bad” teacher. When Cindi Scoppe, Associate Editor for The State (Columbia, SC), explored her own experiences as a student, she concluded:

It only takes one lousy teacher, out of 50 really good ones, to leave indelible scars on a child’s education — and on a parent’s political perspective. It only takes one lousy teacher who returns to the classroom year after year to convince a parent that the public schools care more about preserving jobs for incompetents than providing every child with a good education. It only takes one lousy teacher to make a parent susceptible to the siren song of private school “choice” and “scholarships.”

Scoppe’s impassioned claim drawn from anecdote is both compelling and deeply misleading—both in the hyperbole (“one lousy teacher” and “indelible scar”) and the implication that anecdotes are generalizable and valid (some are, and some are not).

I have been a teacher for 31 years, and if we asked one student to pen a similar piece about me, it is possible she/he would draw the same conclusion because I have on occasion been the one “bad” teacher for a few handfuls of students—at least that would be their perception. And some who think I was “lousy” are entirely justified because I was (despite my best intentions), some who think I was “lousy” are, frankly, wrong, and some who think I was “lousy” are examples of how a teacher can be perfect for one student and lousy for another (and this is often the case on my student evaluations which include several students identifying me as the best teacher they have ever had and then one student saying I was the worst).

But the hyperbole grounded in anecdotes about “bad” teachers (and the related handwringing about the urgent need to be able to fire all those “bad” teachers) is more than a public and media failure; the hyperbole is driven by a political agenda as well, notably the recent announcement under the Obama administration that colleges of education are next on the reform agenda (including another round of accountability based on the test scores of students taught by their candidates).

So since the early 1980s, the education reform agenda has tried the following:

  • Link student promotion/retention and gradation to high-stakes tests.
  • Create school report cards based on high-stakes tests.
  • Base teacher promotion, pay, and retention on high-stakes tests.
  • Label and rank teacher education programs based on high-stakes tests.

There is a fatally flawed motif here (high-stakes tests), but even more troubling is that all efforts to reform education through accountability based on those tests have failed as well as increasing the exact problems the accountability advocates claim to be addressing. Exit exams increased drop outs and non-completers, school report cards stigmatized schools and reduced funding for schools most in need, teachers have been dismissed falsely and teacher attrition has increased under merit-based systems, and soon teacher education will suffer negative consequences as well.

So let’s return to the teacher quality problem in education.

On one important level, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that no child should have a “bad” teacher. But those who make that political and public claim appear insincere or misguided when we consider a few important foundational questions and contradictions:

  1. Where is the evidence that teacher quality is a fundamental or primary aspect of the causes of educational failures or weaknesses? And even if we have such evidence, teacher quality constitutes only about 10-15% of those factors impacting student achievement. Teacher quality, although important, is a minor issue in the context of what reform needs to be address.
  2. In the one area of teacher quality that has a large research base—poor, African American, and Latino/a students disproportionately are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers—the same political advocates of increasing teacher quality also endorse Teach For America, which is designed to assign inexperienced and uncertified teachers to poor, African American, and Latino/a students.
  3. By labeling and ranking teachers (and teacher education programs), we are insuring that we will always have “bad” teachers by the very nature of ranking and since we can never achieve the Lake Wobegon ideal of everyone being above the average.

It seems likely that education must always be in a state of reform. All children in fact do deserve excellent teachers and excellent schools—and thus we must always be working to that end, regardless of it not being possible to achieve it..

There also appears to be a need to maintain the perception of the “bad” teacher and the inability of schools to fire those “bad” teachers—regardless of the accuracy of the perception or how that contributes (or not) to better schools for all children.

Thus we must confront the corrosive nature of using anecdotes and hyperbole in the context of actual policy.

“Bad” teachers, the inability to fire those “bad” teachers, and the quality of teacher education programs—to be blunt—are calculated distractions in the big picture of What Is Wrong with Our Schools.

Political capital, however, can be built on and perpetuated by attacking these exaggerations in the ways that we have experienced for three decades now.

I have had “bad” teachers, and I have been perceived as a “bad” teacher. I have suffered a teacher certification process that I think was lacking, and I have participated in aspects of teacher certification I know are stymied by bureaucracy.

I strongly advocate for reform. I have no patience for “bad” teachers and for the status quo of teacher certification.

But I cannot tolerate education reform grounded in misleading anecdote and hyperbole, and I cannot support policies that, in fact, reinforce the exact problems we are facing.

And we must stop creating policy that seeks ideals beyond the scope of human control. Like 100% student proficiency in No Child Left Behind, having a school system with no “bad” teachers (or all excellent teachers) is unattainable. The goal itself insures failure. (“You know, my firend’s daughter had a bad teacher last year…”)

Again, where is the public, media, and political call for no “bad” pharmacists—a goal that seems far more pressing and necessary?

There is no political capital is bashing pharmacists, however, and that is the ugly secret about the “bad” teacher mantra: Bashing teaching is bashing a “woman’s” field, and pretending educational failure is mostly the fault of those teachers masks the racial and socioeconomic realities driving those failures.

No abusive teachers? I’m on board.

No predatory teachers? Absolutely.

No hungry child? No child without healthcare? No children living transient lives because their parents cannot find stable employment? Let’s move these to the front of the line, please.

But no “bad” teachers? Mostly hyperbole and disingenuousness so I call “calculated distraction” and demand no more “bad” politicians.

Anyone? Anyone?

CALL for Proposals: Inside Stories: Teach For America Corps Members Speak Up and Speak Out

EXTENDED to JUNE 15, 2014

CALL FOR BOOK CHAPTER PROPOSALS – (now Under Contract with Peter Lang)

Inside Stories: Teach For America Corps Members Speak Up and Speak Out

Founded in 1989, Teach For America (TFA) has grown into a massive organization with a presence in thirty states and twenty-six countries, financially supported by a host of philanthropic foundations and other organizations with considerable influence.  Additionally, TFA constitutes an integral part of the larger neoliberal goal of privatizing education and teacher training.  Though a number of narratives from corps members exist, the vast majority of them are controlled or suppressed by TFA.  Moreover, as the organization uses supportive narratives to further its rhetoric of educational reform, the large body of corps member and alumni voices that desire to express discontent, discouragement, frustration, and even anger associated with their experiences with TFA has, until now, been largely silenced.  Following the lead of a critique of TFA by academics over the last few years, slowly TFA corps members and alumni have offered narratives to challenge the official rhetoric of TFA and the supposed “prestigious” position of being a TFA teacher.

In an effort to highlight and continue this counter-narrative, this volume will provide a collection of stories from current and former TFA corps members. We would also consider narratives of parents of TFA corps members. While the most effective tool of promoting TFA as a righteous and prestigious organization are the narratives from supportive corps members who tend to parrot approved talking points, this volume will provide a necessary counter-narrative that should be heard.

Proposals could highlight overall experiences, specific experiences with recruitment/application into TFA, summer Institute experiences, placement experiences, leaving TFA, etc.  The finished narratives should be between 5 and 10 double-spaced pages in APA format. Alternative formats such as poetry or other arts-based representations are also welcome.

Audience

Given the broad audience interested in TFA, we anticipate the audience to include researchers, school board members, principals, parents, and teachers and pre-service teachers.

Schedule

1) Proposals due by JUNE 15, 2014. Include the following to Jameson Brewer at tbrewer2@illinois.edu:

a) Proposed title of chapter

b) Author(s) name, with complete addresses and 150-word biography for each author

c) 500-word abstract of proposed chapter

2) Confirmation of selected chapters by June 17, 2014;

3) Contributors will have their first drafts completed by August 15, 2014.

4) The editors will review these first drafts, and provide detailed comments and suggestions by September 17, 2014.

5) The contributors will make all of the necessary edits, and send the final chapters to the editors by October 17, 2014.

6) The editors will draft a comprehensive introductory chapter and have the foreword written by a well-known scholar in the field, which will be ready along with the index and other editorial issues by November 17, 2014.

7) Once the publisher’s Editor has approved the text, the finalized, formatted volume will be submitted to the publisher shortly after November 17, 2014 which should allow for copy-editing and other related matters to be completed for a publishing date sometime mid 2015.

For questions or queries, contact Jameson Brewer at tbrewer2@illinois.edu and/or Kathleen deMarrais at kathleen@uga.edu

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Andrea Gabor examines the rise of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, raising an important question in the subhead: “Are New Orleans’s schools a model for the nation—or a cautionary tale?”

Gabor ends the piece suggesting caution:

But even for students who don’t fall through the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive systems surrounding charter schools taken public education in the direction we want it to go? Anthony Recasner, a partner in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans charter experiment and his disappointment in the distance that remains between today’s no-excuses charter-school culture and the movement’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a child psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to become CEO of Agenda for Children, a children’s advocacy organization. The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is one of the few African-American charter leaders in New Orleans; his own experience as a poor child raised by a single parent mirrors that of most students in the charter schools. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

In my review of Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope for The Wilson Quarterly, I found Carr’s work to suggest, also, that New Orleans was yet more evidence of the failures of charter schools, “no excuses” ideology, and Teach for America. Below is my expanded review:

Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a story of place.

Readers see first a map of eastern New Orleans, the 9th and 7th Wards, Treme, French Quarter, and Algiers—situating the three schools at the center of the story, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Renaissance, SciAcademy, and O. Perry Walker.

As a Southerner, I thought of Yoknapatawpha County maps in William Faulkner’s novels. That connection predicted accurately the narrative Carr shapes about the intersection of place, race, class, education, and America’s pervasive market ideology. New Orleans public schools have a long history of failure connected to the city’s high poverty rates and racial diversity, but post-Katrina New Orleans has experienced a second flood, a school reform surge characterized by charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and education reformers from outside the city and the South:

But in 2007…Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District [RSD], helped bring hundreds of young educators to the region. Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 after a decade spent leading the Chicago and Philadelphia schools….Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency.

An education journalist for over a decade (The Chronicle of Higher EducationNew Orleans Times-Picayune), Carr weaves a vivid story of twenty-first century education reform, examining the influx of charter schools in New Orleans as options designed to address high-poverty and minority students. The stories are drawn from principal Mary Laurie, student Geraldlynn Stewart, and TFA recruit and Harvard graduate Aidan Kelly in the wake of Katrina recovery efforts from 2010 through 2012.

The place, New Orleans, is Carr’s touchstone for six parts, each divided among The Family (Geraldlyn’s family), The Teacher (Kelly), and The Principal (Laurie). Geraldlyn expresses ambivalent attitudes about her KIPP education as it contrasts with her mother’s efforts to provide Geraldlyn a better life. Kelly personifies the “missionary zeal” of TFA recruits, but also offers insight into those ideals as they clash with the reality of day-to-day schooling. Dedicated to her city, Laurie was a successful public school educator before Katrina, but after the hurricane, the RSD laid off public school teachers and dissolved the teachers unions; charter schools gave Laurie a new start, but not without complications.

Carr crafts some of the best education reform journalism to date, presenting a critical eye on charter schools (specifically KIPP), TFA, and a market-based model supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Charter schools and TFA represent reform policies that view public school traditions, teacher certification and teachers unions, as root causes of poor academic outcomes. To eradicate those in-school problems, choice and competition are embraced as the primary tools for reform. Carr’s examination, however, calls these claims and solutions into question.

Education journalism often offers slogans such as “miracle schools” and “grit” (Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Whatever It Takes, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars, and Jay Matthews’s Work Hard. Be Nice.). But Carr allows KIPP and TFA advocates to speak for themselves. For example, Kelly reveals his unwavering idealism as it intersects the no-excuses ideology of TFA and KIPP, organizations that attract and encourage privileged young people who believe they can change the world through their own determination.

Instead of silver bullets, Carr presents a nuanced analysis: “A trap confronted schools: If they took the students with the most intense needs, their numbers might suffer. But the state would shut them down if their numbers suffered too much and for too long. Then who would take the neediest?” That analysis is driven by stories. At the end of Part II, Rebirth, Carr quotes Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School:

There are so many stories, she said one afternoon, sitting on a bench under Walker’s breezeway. “I worry that they will get lost, that there’s no one to tell them. My big fear is that all folks will remember is that when Katrina hit, people had to ride in on their white horses and save the children of New Orleans.” She shuddered at the thought.

Yet, stories are often ignored in twenty-first century education after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB, school and teacher accountability has increased, based primarily on high-stakes tests and judged against data such as the achievement gap. Later, a comment from Laurie stands at the center of the education reform movement that Carr’s narrative confronts, unmasks, and exposes powerfully:

“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”

To this, we might add that Laurie’s concern about her charter school in the crucible of New Orleans education reform parallels the often-ignored problem at the center of universal public education in the U.S., a system designed to serve any and all students with equity regardless of background.

While Carr challenges education reform and the limits of good intentions among KIPP and TFA advocates, she also grounds her confrontations in a larger commitment: “At times, both KIPP’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest critics insult and demean the very families they purpose to protect by assuming they, and they alone, know what is best for other people’s children.”

Furthermore, by echoing educator Lisa Delpit’s recognition that many reforms ask less of “other people’s children” by narrowing their learning to worksheets and test-prep, Carr forces critics of KIPP and TFA to examine why many low-income minority parents not only choose no-excuses schools but also enthusiastically encourage no-excuses practices. No-excuses ideologies place an emphasis on authoritarian discipline and a culture of intense personal responsibility that includes teachers and students being held accountable for outcomes that critics warn are beyond the control of either. No-excuses advocates, including parents, embrace the exact paternalism critics challenge.

Carr offers a skeptical voice against education reform mirroring “disaster capitalism” in New Orleans, when markets generate profit from the “blank slate” of disasters (see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein). Yet, she offers nuanced praise when reformers succeed. For example, students are told at KIPP orientation a Cherokee legend about everyone embodying a good and bad wolf. That lesson gains a life of its own among students: “The fable’s power over their actions seemed to suggest that appealing to a person’s high self, no matter whether they are young teenagers or adults, carries more influence than rules or demerits ever could.”

In the middle of the book, Carr discusses Woodson Middle School, supplanted by a KIPP campus after FEMA declared the building irreparable because of Katrina. Woodson Middle had been named for Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s. Woodson “represented an evolution, and radicalization, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy, which emphasized black empowerment through political rights and educational attainment”—a “philosophy…[that] stood in stark contrast to the view of contemporary school reformers” such as Michelle Rhee (TFA recruit, former chancellor of education in Washington DC, and founder of Students First), KIPP advocates, and TFA supporters.

Hope Against Hope is a cautionary tale about ideology—reformers honoring market forces over democratic values by stressing indirect reform through choice and competition instead of reforming directly public institutions when they fail to achieve equity—and the muted and ignored agency of people in their own lives.

As Carr acknowledges in the Prologue, her narrative details “competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America,” but anyone seeking silver bullets, trite slogans, or popular assumptions will find “inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.” Like Kathleen Nolan confronting zero-tolerance policies in Police in the Hallways (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Carr shows that simple solutions cannot remedy complex problems.

Where claims of “miracle” schools and no-excuses mantras stumble, Hope against Hope soars in its bittersweet humanity, the rich and uncomfortable tapestry of living and learning in poverty in twenty-first century America.

Carr’s Epilogue offers advice for reforming education reform: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community—not as a result of its submission.”

To understand U.S. education and education reform, then, Carr’s story of New Orleans is an essential place to start.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

Missionary Zeal and the Paradox of Paternalism

The United States of America fails Allie Fox, pushing him to abandon his homeland and to drag his family to the coast of Honduras in Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, popularized by the Harrison Ford and River Phoenix film adaptation:

“That’s business,” the captain said.

“That’s ruin,” Father [Allie Fox] said. “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty, buy what we don’t need, and throw away everything that’s useful. Don’t sell a man what he wants—sell him what he doesn’t want. Pretend he’s got eight feet and two stomachs and money to burn. That’s not illogical—it’s evil.” (p. 75)

The novel, narrated by Allie’s son, Charlie, presents Allie as a gifted scientist/inventor with socialistic ideals and an aggressive humanism: “Father said, ‘Man is God’” (p. 85). In fact, Charlie notes, “It seemed as if Father could work miracles” (p. 63).

However, one character, Polski, recognizes danger lurking beneath Allie’s missionary zeal: “‘Your father’s the most obnoxious man I’ve ever met,’ Polski said”:

“He’s the worst kind of pain in the neck—a know-it-all who’s sometimes vight.”

Then, with all the sawdust in him stirring, he added, “I’ve come to see he’s dangerous….Tell him he’s a dangerous man, and one of these days he’s going to get you al killed….” (p. 55)

Theroux’s novel echoes and parallels other works about hubris and missionary zeal—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Yet, in Theroux’s narrative Allie is one type of missionary who sees himself above the religious missionaries in the novel. Reverend Spellgood is mocked by Allie, but the reverend’s daughter, Emily Spellgood, explains to Charlie, “‘My father’s real famous there. We’ve got a mission in the jungle. It’s really neat’” (p. 71).

Allie, however, seems comfortable with his own mission: “‘I was sent here,’ Father said” (p. 136)—a mission that involves buying land and imposing his Utopia on the native people of that land and his own family.

The novel builds to a predictable end, revealing that despite Allie’s considerable gifts and altruism, his missionary zeal reduces him to a careless tyrant, an embodiment of evil.

As a grand allegory, Theroux’s novel raises questions about paternalism, the quest by some agent of privilege to help others who appear to be in need.

Traditional religious missionary work certainly confronts that paradox of paternalism inherent in their missionary zeal, but education also faces this dilemma, broadly in commitments such as service learning and more narrowly in the mission of Teach for America, an organization that champions its missionary zeal.

In “Why Service-Learning Is Bad,” John W. Eby (1998) identifies the often ignored negative consequences of the good intentions behind service learning:

The excitement and euphoria of the service-learning movement, fueled by dramatic stories of the benefits of linking learning and service masks underlying troubling issues. The limitations of service done in the name of service-learning are often overlooked and possible harm done by to communities by short term volunteers is ignored. Conversations about negative aspects of service-learning do surface occasionally in the hallways of the academy and in the lounges of service-learning conferences. There is talk of McService, service bites, quick fix service, happy meal community service, or service in a box. Discussions of the limits service-learning have surfaced on the Internet. Community leaders and agency representatives concerned about fundamental community change raise significant questions when given opportunity.

Unfortunately these voices are often informal and sporadic. Much of the discussion about service-learning is carried on by advocates. Most of the published research about service-learning is done by academicians particularly interested in the learning side of the equation. Community leaders and residents do not have a voice in the dialogue. (p. 2)

The potential for imposed and misguided paternalism in service learning highlights the essential paradox of both service and teaching: What is the role of the population being served and/or taught, and even more complex, if that population is genuinely in need, how do those with privilege seeking to help or teach provide for others who may be unaware of those needs?

In service learning contexts, Eby does not suggest abandoning service learning, but does raise cautions about the dangers he outlines. In short, service learning helps both populations being served and the learners charged with conducting service learning when all stakeholders have equal and powerful voices guiding the projects.

A far more problematic situation, however, is the high-poverty and predominantly minority populations being served by TFA. As Sarah Car has documented in New Orleans, despite many critics condemning TFA for its missionary zeal and classist/racist practices, impoverished and minority families often eagerly choose and embrace TFA and the highly authoritarian charter schools that have flooded the city.

Carr’s work as well as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow exposes the problem of choice underneath the paradox of paternalism. Just as Carr’s narrative forces readers to consider why impoverished minorities embrace TFA and “no excuses” charter schools, Alexander directly confronts the fact that high-poverty and African American neighborhoods appear to support the mass incarceration Alexander characterizes as the new JimCrow:

Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people “support” mass incarceration or “get-tough” policies [because] if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be “more prisons.” (p. 210)

The world controlled by Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast is eventually revealed as a world with artificial choices, choices that back innocent people into corners, choices that mask the corrosive influence of privilege and rendering people being served as the Other.

Just as Eby recognizes how service learning can fall prey to forces that corrupt its mission, TFA (and “no excuses” charter schools) often falls prey to their missionary zeal, like Allie, and causes far more harm than good—despite their stated mission.

The troubling difference between TFA and Theroux’s novel, of course, is that TFA is a reality for children and communities, not simply an engaging and disturbing novel/film.

The paradox of paternalism inherent in service and teaching is not an easy problem to overcome—although awareness is a first step—but when it is compounded with missionary zeal, the outcomes are too easily predicted—children, adults, and communities underserved by a traditional system once again being mis-served by an organization promising a land of milk and honey.

Allie’s death in the novel reveals that he has become the thing he mocked: “But a white man’s death was news—a missionary, they called him. How he would have hated that!” (p. 373).

Those of us drawn to service and teaching, then, should beware missionary zeal and be aware of the paradox of paternalism.

Post-Katrina New Orleans: Disatser Capitalism Feeds on Poverty and Racism

Drawing from her Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr asks, Can school reform hurt communities?—focusing on New Orleans:

New Orleans may be the extreme test case, but reforms like these are reshaping public education across the country. The movement is rooted in the notion that “fixing” schools is the strongest lever for lifting communities out of poverty. The criminal justice and health care systems may be broken, living-wage jobs in short supply, and families forced to live in unstable or unsafe conditions. But the buck supposedly stops in the classroom. Thus teachers can find themselves charged with remedying an impossibly broad set of challenges that go far beyond reading at grade level.

Post-Katrina New Orleans represents a crucible for both disaster capitalism and the neoliberal (privatization) agenda driving education reform. After the hurricane devastated New Orleans, the city was swept clean of its teacher workforce (overwhelmingly African Americans constituting a significant percentage of the black middle class), its public schools, and its teachers union so that Paul Vallas could rebuild the school system with charter schools and Teach for American recruits, inexperienced and uncertified teachers who are often white, affluent, and transplants to New Orleans from all across the US. Carr highlights the tensions in this human-made flood of the city:

But most explanations have focused on the radical overhaul of the city’s education system: the expansion of independent charter schools (which more than 80 percent of New Orleans public school children now attend); a greater reliance on alternative teacher training programs like Teach for America; and the increased use of test scores to determine whether educators should keep their jobs and schools should stay open….

This mentality has attracted ambitious, talented young teachers from across the country. But it has also risked turning teaching into a missionary pursuit. At a few of the charter schools I have reported on over the last six years, less than 10 percent of the teachers came from New Orleans or were older than 35. “I think a lot of people who come to New Orleans want to change New Orleanians,” said Mary Laurie, a veteran school administrator and principal of O. Perry Walker High School….

This disconnect can manifest itself in ways both small (as when a teacher fails to recognize a popular New Orleans term, like “beaucoup” for “a lot”) and large (as when a teacher can’t grasp what students are going through at home).

Yet, while New Orleans has become a feast for disaster capitalism (see Archer and Bessie’s graphic journalism here, here, and here), political and public concern for the city and for the greater assault on public education, children and families living in poverty, and teachers remains essentially absent.

In her critical analysis of education reform in New Orleans, Kristen Buras concludes: “Critical research and ongoing activism in multiple spaces are crucial. What is currently happening in New Orleans is not socially conscious capitalism. It is simply unconscionable” (p. 324).

That New Orleans, public schools across the US, teachers, teachers unions, and families in poverty remain under assault while political leadership, advocacy representatives, and the public remain focused on baseless calls for Common Core and next generation testing as well as equally baseless attacks of teacher education exposes some harsh realities about the US: profit and the privilege of wealth matter, but workers, children, and the impoverished do not.

There is simply no other lesson one can draw from New Orleans today.

REVIEW: Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform, Crawford-Garrett

In her Chapter 3 for Becoming and Being a Teacher, Katherine Crawford-Garrett (University of New Mexico) “trace[d] the experiences of one cohort of first-year TFA corps members teaching in Philadelphia during the 2010-2011 school year at a time when the School District faced intense pressure to reform” (p. 27).

This chapter is a examination of several tensions related to Teach for America (TFA), teacher education, teacher agency, and urban education. Her new book from Peter Lang USA, Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization, presents an extended critical analysis of those same experiences.

While TFA research, advocacy, and commentary offer various degrees of soaring rhetoric and harsh condemnation, Crawford-Garrett’s work reminds me of the powerful and effective look at one TFA corp member in New Orleans detailed in Sara Carr’s Hope Against Hope. Crawford-Garret, like Carr, seeks important understanding about education, education reform, and teacher education through a critical look at the complex and unpredictable experiences of novice teachers in high-poverty urban schools under incredible accountability pressure.

The seven chapters of Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform are grounded in some key contexts:

[T]he tragedy of urban education in this country has become a media spectacle, with the film Waiting for Superman garnering accolades, regardless of its limiting portrayals of teachers, optimistic endorsement of school choice and unexamined claim that outside intervention is an unequivocal good….The favored remedies…have little to do with the deep, reflective and locally driven approach that characterized the Civil Rights movement, emphasizing instead the de-professionalization of teachers, the persistent depiction of students and families as deficient and an overreliance on top-down mechanisms to improve teaching and learning. (p. 3)

For educators, administrators, policy leaders, and the public, Crawford-Garrett details an accessible, in-depth, and critical journey that maintains a focus on the tensions and complexity of education in two often contradictory contexts—high-stakes accountability and urban education.

While it would be easy simply to marginalize or reject TFA as an organization or even the often overly idealistic corp members, Crawford-Garrett instead confronts and challenges deficit perspectives about teaching, learning, and students; assumptions about urban education; and the failure of traditional education and education reform to honor and support teacher agency.

Reading this volume helps stakeholders from many arenas better understand the challenges of urban education, education reform, teacher education, and ultimately achieving the often ignored goals of democratic and emancipatory public education.