Preventing Arson Instead of Putting Out Fires

What do the allegory of the river, the science fiction film In Time, and a mainstream examination of living in poverty by an economist and a psychologist reveal for those of us seeking the next phase in our resistance of the education reform agenda in the U.S.?

We need to pull back from a thousand individual examples of how political, media, and public claims about education are failing children and public education. In other words, we need to increase our calls for ending arson and reduce our efforts to put out fires.

The allegory of the river emphasizes the need to address causes for our problems, instead of only tackling over and over the consequences:

The woman replied, “Someone or something is causing these children to fall into the river.  We could be here for years pulling broken bodies from the water.  I am going to walk upstream until I find out what is causing these children to fall in and see if I can do something to stop it!”

Babies tossed in the river, arsons setting fires—or as Oscar Wilde confronted, “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

So step one in the next phase is shifting our energy to causes.

Step two includes a recognition that spending a disproportionate amount of our time and energy putting out the fires the education reformers are setting insures the reformers win—just as the majority of people are shackled to their frantic lives artificially by ruling forces in the film In Time.

Teachers and students are now experiencing paralyzing frantic lives—conditions (remedies) labeled “reform” that in fact “deform” (part of the disease).

Focus on causes, reduce our frantic responses, and then the third step, revealed in Scarcity: Committing ourselves to disciplinary evidence addressing large-scale social forces (instead of accusatory stares focused on individuals).

Let’s consider, then, how to move forward, shifting our messages away from putting out fires and toward calling out grand scale failures because politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z is not a unique or especially flawed example on his or her own.

Politicians, celebrities and journalists are failing the public discourse often, and we cannot express enough that those failures are grounded primarily in their lack of experience and expertise in teaching and education. So we certainly need to continue reminding everyone of those facts: I don’t know politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z, and I have no way genuinely to examine any of their intentions or essential nature as people (although I have credible suspicions, I think), but I do know they have little to no credibility, and that their claims and policies are misguided.

Today, for example, reveals both our need to continue the resistance (although with a new resolve) and how dangerous our duty remains:

  • The New York Times reports on very disturbing details about a sports-celebrity’s charter school. The lesson here is not specifically the celebrity-athlete or the political figures who allowed the charter to form, but the larger failure: Political, media, and public commitments that ignore expertise and evidence represented by the unwarranted charter school movement.
  • NPR reports on a journalist’s book about teaching, teachers, and teacher effectiveness. The media coverage of that book has also promoted Tom Loveless to refute many of the claims made by the journalist. None of this is an isolated or unique problem because we daily are bombarded by the media and journalists examining education as if educators and researchers have never considered their own field. The result is the public is misguided once again. NPR and the NYT represent journalists covering journalists writing about the disciplines as if the experts in the disciplines simply do not exist; and therein lies the problem.
  • At The Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet, we learn that grading policies at Princeton are mis-serving students. Education Week adds that at-risk students are also mis-served. These seemingly separate reform fires can be traced to the same arsonist: Our urge to label students and our blind allegiance to grading.

I could go on, and tomorrow will be the same, I suspect: Fires, fires, everywhere fires—ones set by the exact reformers who claim to be here to help us (possibly suggesting another key work of science fiction literature).

We cannot ignore the fires, of course, but we must not allow them to keep us mostly focused on the frantic task of fighting those fires to the exclusion of unmasking the arsons, an unmasking designed to prevent those fires.

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida [1]

What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests and charter schools have in common?

First, they have a great deal of public and political support.

But, second, the research base on these policies has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.

South Carolina is a typical example of how education policy not grounded in evidence continues to fail students. For example, charter schools advocacy remains robust but deeply misleading:

We know that choice in education changes lives. We must work together to develop a culture in South Carolina that values education — from our families to funding at the State House. All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, and excellent public charter schools are part of the solution in transforming South Carolina’s future.

This sort of incomplete advocacy [2] is commonplace despite charter schools in SC reinforcing discrediting patterns found across the U.S.:

Charter schools—like grade retention—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for the essential problems facing public education.

Nonetheless, SC also models reform on Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies discredited when reviewed. However, as John Thompson details:

Oklahoma’s Republican Legislature overrode the veto of Republican Governor Mary Fallin, and overwhelmingly rejected another cornerstone of Jeb Bush’s corporate reform agenda. The overall vote was 124 to 21….

Oklahoma’s victory over the test and punish approach to 3rd grade reading is a win-win team effort of national importance. The override was due to an unexpected, grassroots uprising started by parents, joined by superintendents and teachers, organized on social media, and assisted by anti- corporate reform educators and our opposite, Stand for Children, as well as Tea Party supporters, and social service providers who are increasingly coming to the rescue of the state’s grossly underfunded schools.

The rise of grade-retention policy and  charter schools shares the flawed combination of popularity and a solid research base discrediting those policies. Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo pose some key points about the need to reject grade-retention policy, points that should guide needed movements against charter schools and other misguided policy:

  • Before policy is implemented, the problem needs to be clearly defined with the research base on the appropriate policies for that problem identified by experts in the field (not political leaders or policy advocates). If, for example, reading achievement is an identified problem in a state, what do we know about grade retention as a policy solution? According to Stipek and Lombardo:

A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation. According to a 2005 review of decades of studies by Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie: “Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family background, etc.”

  • Once we establish the problem and the evidence base on the reform, what concept should guide adopting new policy? Again, about retention, Stipek and Lombardo explain: “Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.” In other words, policies that reinforce or replicate the identified problems must be ended, and then something different needs to be implemented.

If reading achievement is a problem, grade retention guarantees to cause more harm than good.

If public school segregation and student achievement are problems, charter schools actually fuel segregation and offer about the same student achievement (and even worse) as public schools.

Currently, the public and political leaders rail against failing schools and failing students, but the truth is that public and political support for misguided policy is failing students.

SC needs to choose the sorts of public school policies that will insure that no child and no parent needs to choose the school best for any child. In SC and across the U.S., we need to choose Oklahoma, not Florida.

[1] Op-Ed originally published at The Greenville News, and included here to add hyperlinks for support.

[2] See Review of The Productivity of Public Charter Schools

“Education as Great Equalizer” Deforming Myth, Not Reality

In the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons,” viewers watch yet another clash between the essentially soulless main characters as they interact with the very white and privileged “real world” surrounding them in the sitcom. The crux of this episode revolves around one couple having a baby, and then what occurs when reality clashes with civility:

Jerry: Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?

Elaine: Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like the Pekinese.

Jerry: Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. (They sit) And, you know, the thing is, they’re never gonna know, no one’s ever gonna tell them. (See transcript here.)

Setting aside what this scene (again) reveals about Jerry and Elaine, an important message we can draw from this tension is that most people genuinely do not want to face the harsh truth, especially when that harsh truth contradicts their beliefs.

As I have examined before, the U.S. is overwhelmingly a belief culture, committed to our cultural myths even and especially when those myths have no basis in evidence.

When I have approached the overwhelming evidence that poverty is destiny, I receive angry challenges from people all along the spectrum of ideologies Right and Left, but I also have people who align themselves with me send pleas that I stop such nonsense: Rejecting hard truths has no ideological boundary.

However, in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny, and those who shudder at that reality are confusing verbs: Yes, poverty should not be destiny, but false claims will never allow us to achieve that ideal.

So this leads me to a parallel harsh truth: Education is not the great equalizer (and, again, education should be the great equalizer, but making that claim when it isn’t a reality is inexcusable.)

As I have highlighted numerous times, Matt Bruenig, using “data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project about social mobility (I,II),” presents a stark reality and draws a disturbing conclusion:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility. Take a look at this super-complicated chart, which I will describe below….

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

In the U.S., powerful mythologies drive a faith in social mobility (connected to working hard, being well educated, and achievement coming to those who merit that success), but also foster counter-narratives that are essentially ugly and unwarranted: those who are poor or fail are lazy, underserving (read Scarcity for a powerful and evidence-based look at how poverty overwhelms people instead of poverty results from flawed individuals).

The evidence is overwhelming and growing, however, that education is not the great equalizer and that poverty/affluence remain essentially destiny, as reported by Juana Summers at NPR:

Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.

“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.

But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.

In The Long Shadow, Alexander, Entwistle, and Olson “followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into,” Rosen explains, discovering:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men—because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

The realities of class and race in the U.S. are far removed from simplistic slogans.

In the U.S., African Americans with some college have the same economic power as white high school drop-outs.

And the relationship between education and opportunity proves to be again and again, misleading. The SAT remains a powerful gatekeeper for college, despite SAT scores being less effective than GPA (actual merit) for determining who attends college.

More disturbing, however, is that access to education provides cover for the what truly matters in the U.S.: as The Long Shadow and Bruenig document, the coincidences of birth—money and family (and not merit).

While I maintain that hollow slogans (“education is the great equalizer”) prove to be “myths that deform,” [1] and thus work against our ideals, I am not calling for some sort of callous fatalism.

The first step toward “poverty is not destiny” and “education is the great equalizer” is naming the current failures in order to establish actions and policies that would shift the existing, and ugly, realities: poverty and affluence are destiny and wealth/family trump merit (such as education)—all of which are magnified by lingering racism.

Next, we must confront our assumptions about who is wealthy and who is impoverished, coupled with ending cultural demands that the impoverished work twice as hard and that the disadvantaged conform to higher moral and ethical standards. As Oscar Wilde eloquently argued:

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this….[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease….

And in this recognition, Wilde rejects those “remedies”:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor….

It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair….

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

It is, then, ours to reject both “exaggerated altruism” and base fatalism; instead, we must commit to the following:

  • Name and recognize inequity without stooping to demonizing people. In our current commitments to meritocracy myths, we demonize the poor; but it does no one any good to simply shift who we demonize. Our enemy is inequity, and solutions to inequity rest in changing powerful social dynamics and not with “fixing” flawed (or promoting idealized and false portraits of “successful”) individuals.
  • Stop promoting false myths to children because as they grow up, they come to see the myth as a lie, and thus, the entire promise of the American Dream is tarnished.
  • Commit to social and education policy grounded in equity, and not in competition or market forces.

We need a new way to speak to our children. And we must begin here: “We have not yet created the country we want, and we must admit life continues to be too often unfair. But things can be better, and we are here to help because you can live in a world more fair than the one we have given you.”

Success in the U.S. is not the result of “grit,” not the consequence of some people being more determined (“better”) than others. Many people worker harder than others, but remain impoverished, have less access to opportunities. None of this should be true, but it is.

Ultimately, however, we must put our money and actions where our words take us. Otherwise, as John Gardner warned, equity, fairness, and justice become “cheap streamers in the rain.”

[1] “[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

The New York Times headline suggests we are finally poised to read a positive story about education: A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade.

But education reporter Motoko Rich’s examination of third-grade retention policies based on the Florida model and sweeping across the U.S. is not about “hope,” but about a disturbing resistance by political leaders, the media, and the public to confront the overwhelming evidence that grade-retention is a harmful policy and that the Florida model has been discredited.

Rich opens with one of the misleading Urban Legends driving flawed reading policies: “Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.'”

However, as Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR:

“The theory of the fourth-grade shift had been based on behavioral data,” says the lead author of the study, Donna Coch. She heads the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College.

The assumption teachers make: “In a nutshell,” Coch says, “by fourth grade you stop learning to read and start reading to learn. We’re done teaching the basic skills in third grade, and you go use them starting in the fourth.”

But, Coch’s team found, that assumption may not be true. The study involved 96 participants, divided among third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders as well as college students. All average readers, the subjects wore noninvasive electrode caps that could swiftly pick up electrical activity in the brain.

Narrow and distorted assumptions about reading (and literacy broadly) have plagued reading instruction for over a century in the U.S. (review the work of Lou LaBrant to see how this has played out over much of the 20th century). A superficial view of reading and writing (often reduced to phonics, or simple pronunciation, and grammar, or “correctness”) is compounded by our testing culture that further skews how we teach and perceive reading and writing; how we test reading and writing (disproportionately multiple-choice formats seeking the “right” answers or correct “rules”) becomes what counts as reading and writing.

Rich’s article doesn’t present hope for students struggling to read, but does provide a a picture of how the Florida model is sweeping the U.S.:

Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.

While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources. A six-week course, they say, cannot possibly make up for what Anthony and the others need: the extra help and focus should start in preschool.

Is the problem with 3rd-grade retention policies based on high-stakes reading tests simply “insufficient resources”?

While too often policy is crippled by a failure to provide resources matching the rhetoric, the problem here is that both grade retention and the Florida model have been refuted by 40 years of research (grade retention) and reviews of the Florida model (see HERE and HERE).

The rise of grade retention policies is further evidence of the failures associated with accountability based on high-stakes testing, another subset of the entire accountability model that we persist to re-package despite the growing record of its failure (see HERE and HERE).

Instead of building reading (and all literacy) policies and practices on accountability models, we must make the following changes to achieve the hope mislabeled in the opening headline:

  • Grade retention and extended school days/years are likely to be viewed by students as punishment as well as markers for their own failures. Measurable reading achievement and high-stakes test scores are primarily markers for the relative affluence or poverty of children; thus, punitive policies are punishing children for the accidents of their birth. Let’s instead seek policies that address directly the poverty that deny our children hope in the first place. As Stephen Krashen has shown, access to books in a child’s home is one of the most powerful ways to support childhood literacy development. Shifting from the punitive (grade retention, extended days/years) to a restorative model (providing books for children) is a powerful first step toward real hope.
  • Literacy is a life-long journey, and not a sequential/linear human behavior that can be “finished.” We must set aside reductive views of reading and writing, embracing instead policies and practices that provide all students extended opportunities to read and write daily in school. Children need to read and write by choice and with expert direct guidance for hundreds and thousands of hours over many, many years. Literacy has no shortcut, in fact, and we continue to misread strong literacy among affluent children as something other than the rich experiences they are afforded by the accidents of the births. That misreading results in a corrosive deficit view of children in poverty. All children need and deserve rich experiences, extended rich experiences with literacy; grade-retention and high-stakes tests are not rich experiences with texts.
  • Childhood literacy is strongly associated with the literacy of the adults in children’s lives—their parents, siblings, and teachers. Investing in a wide-range of policies addressing adult and family literacy, then, is investing in each child’s literacy: well-funded public libraries, well-funded and staffed school libraries, community reading initiatives, book drives and free books for families, rich teacher and librarian staffing and in-service related to literacy growth.

In Louise DeSalvo’s memoir, Vertigo, the Virginia Wolff scholar details how as a child and teenager she finds solace in the library and relationships with kind teachers (notably a physics teacher who chooses to honor her love of reading while encouraging the young DeSalvo to stop ignoring his course; see pp. 168-169), while coming to recognize the power of her passion for reading. DeSalvo’s life story—as with Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Margaret Atwood—is a vivid narrative about the hope found in reading, and a stark antidote to reading policy driven by misreading literacy and research, misreading our children and childhood.

Rich documents a failure of credible literacy policy trapped in political ideology:

In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.

But this is not reason to celebrate, but a call to change course.

A Call for the Next Phase in the Resistance

Teachers at every level of schooling have struggled against two powerful social claims: (i) education has always been labeled a failure by political leaders and the media (notably in the context of international comparisons and despite such claims being at least misleading if not completely false) and (ii) that K-12 teachers must not be political while university professors should also focus on their scholarship and not drift into public intellectual work.

The consequences of these dynamics include an essentially passive teacher workforce and an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucracy driving how schools (K-12 and universities) are run, that dysfunction primarily grounded in that non-educators make most of the structural educational decisions and thus the education system is done to (and not by) the professionals themselves.

Over the past thirty years, this process has become more clearly codified and federalized, the seeds of which were planted in the early 1980s commitment to the accountability paradigm based on standards and high-stakes testing, and then expanded through NCLB in 2001 as well as copy-cat initiatives under the Obama administration.

Most of those accountability years, I would classify as Phase 1, a period characterized by a political monopoly on both public discourse and policy addressing primarily public K-12 education.

We are now in Phase 2, a time in which (in many ways aided by the rise in social media—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—and the alternative press—AlterNet and Truthout) teachers, professors, and educational scholars have begun to create a resistance to the political, media, and public commitments to recycling false charges of educational failure in order to continue the same failed approaches to education reform again and again.

In Phase 1, educators were subjected to the role of the child; we were asked to be seen but not heard.

In Phase 2, adolescence kicked in, and we quite frankly began to experiment with our rebellious selves. In many instances, we have been pitching a fit—a completely warranted tantrum, I believe, but a tantrum nonetheless.

And now that there are some cracks in the education reform machine, now that we have committed ourselves to being that resistance, the voice and action of those who are the professionals, I am making a call for Phase 3, something like moving into our young adulthood as a resistance.

Having taught high school for 18 years and having raised a daughter into her mid-20s (so far), I am one who both loves and recognizes the power and danger of the passion driving adolescents. I am often jealous that adolescents can care so deeply and so loudly, and often with the ability to hold their pitch high endlessly.

The power of adolescent passion is that it breeds passion and it draws attention. The danger of adolescent passion is that it must result in something substantial or all that exponential passion and attention wither.

Now that we as the resistance have fostered passion beyond the choir and now that we have begun to garner the attention of a few politicians, a few journalists, and many parents as well as interested members of the public, I sense a need to make a shift in strategies that include the following:

  • While I remain committed to my many arguments defending tone, the resistance now must lead our claims with substance and take care not to create opportunities for our central messages to be overshadowed by either credible or unwarranted complaints about tone. I am reminded of the evolution of Michael Stipe’s lyrics for the alternative rock group R.E.M.; Stipe admitted during what can now be called the mid-period of the band that he had moved on from being always ironic and sarcastic about topics such as love (note the early “The One I Love”) in order to consider them seriously (note “At My Most Beautiful”). I am not saying we should no longer be angry (we should) or sarcastic and biting, but I believe we have come to a time in which our primary driving tone must be above the possibility of having our central mission undermined.
  • A related shift must be avoiding the trap of maintaining too much energy on putting out fires set by education reformers, notably in that we as the resistance are embroiled in refuting the person of the moment (from Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan to the current Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg). This is a very difficult bind for the resistance because education reform is rich not only in funding but also in celebrities of the moment. And my argument here is not that we do not refute edu-reformers without credibility, but that we maintain as we discredit a focus on the larger evidence and claims instead of suggesting that this person or that person is the problem. For example, I have offered that the Common Core debate is not about the specific standards, but about the failure of the accountability paradigm itself. With Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Brown, and others, our concern is that these people lack experience and expertise in our field, and thus, their claims and policies are the problems—not them as people. If we must write about Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on teacher tenure, we need to focus on what tenure is and how her characterization is misinformed—but not on that Goldberg said it (she isn’t alone, by the way, and by highlighting her, we suggest she has more credibility than dozens of other people saying the same misinformation).
  • As I have noted before (in the context of the John Oliver Rule), we must use the incredible platform that Diane Ravitch has built for teachers, professors, and scholars in order to build a movement of many faces, many voices, and many experts. The mainstream media have reduced the resistance to Ravitch in much the same way that the media have reduced climate change to Bill Nye. The resistance is and must be promoted as a rich and varied body of professionals, both unified and driven by the tensions of our field. Race, gender, sexuality, ideology—the rainbow of our resistance must be prominent and we cannot allow it to be reduced, oversimplified, or marginalized.

In short, as I have argued about the Common Core debate, the resistance has reached a point when we must forefront rational and evidence-based alternatives to a crumbling education reform disaster.

We must be the adults in the room, the calm in the storm. It won’t be easy, but it is time for the resistance to grow up and take our next step.

Denying Impact of Poverty Has an Evidence Problem

As I have noted, denying racism has an evidence problem. But those who persist in denying the impact of poverty also have an evidence problem; thus, they have to manufacture evidence.

But manufacture evidence they will—as evidenced by Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann (2014). However, David Berliner and Stephen Krashen have now unmasked that effort:

David Berliner Responds to Economists Who Discount Role of Child Poverty

Do American Rich Kids do Worse on International Tests than Rich Kids from Other Countries?

I also recommend this, related:

3 Facts that Poverty-Deniers Don’t Want to Hear

Rational and Evidence-Based Responses to Standards Advocates and Critics

Because the education agendas and discourse by Democrats and Republicans are essentially indistinguishable, as I have argued before, educators have no political party.

Educators are similarly trapped, however, in the Common Core debate between standards advocates and standards critics, who are also indistinguishable for two prominent reasons: the failure to start the consideration of standards on either a rational or an evidence-based foundation.

Political leaders, the mainstream, media, and education reform advocates with the highest profiles represent the most distinct and influential evidence of this dynamic. Typically, the better considerations of standards broadly and Common Core narrowly are left to bloggers—for example, Rachel Levy’s The Common Condescension and Peter Greene’s Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars.

While Levy and Greene offer critiques with much greater credibility than the Common Core commentaries they refute, the wider public is likely to be left with having seen only the original, and flawed, claims. We edu-bloggers who have both experience and expertise in education are more or less left to preach to the choir.

But since the most recent trend concerning Common Core is for advocates and critics to discuss and analyze the Common Core debate itself—again, evidence that Common Core advocates have in fact won—I want to offer one more time the two foundational reasons that pursuing standards is a failed structure for education reform, two reasons that standards/Common Core advocates have been successful at removing from the table entirely.

Let’s start with basic logic problems for basing education reform on standards (especially the perpetual pursuit of new and better standards).

In order for new standards to be a major or significant solution to education problems, we would need to establish that current standards (or a lack of standards) are the source of those problems. This may surprise some, but I have never seen a single careful examination of whether or not standards are the problem (see below for the evidence on what we do know about standards as a part of the reform agenda); thus, standards are unlikely to be the solution.

A practical logic problem also exists for those advocating or criticizing standards: If I am teaching, my job is to identify where any student is in her/his learning and then to take that student farther, both in terms of direct teaching and by motivating that student to learn. That fact of real-world teaching renders detailed standards irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what a standard deems any student should know and when since the reality of that student supersedes those mandates.

Calculating something such as 8th-grade reading level (a spurious venture at best) and then crafting standards to hold all teachers of 8th-graders and all 8th-graders to that goal remain mostly theory, achievable in the abstract maybe, but, again, prove pointless in the real world where any classroom of 8th-graders has reading experiences and abilities all along a wide spectrum that each teacher must work with and from.

My 8th-grader reading above grade level and my 8th-grader reading below grade level both deserve my teaching them, and not that I try to accomplish the state-mandated standards. (And to suggest that I need someone to mandate my standards lest I know not what to teach is a truly offensive claim for a professional.)

A rational and ethical approach to teaching begins with where students are, not with standard calls for where every student should be.

However, if the rational approaches to considering standards-based reform aren’t enough (and they should be enough to show that the debate itself is fruitless, that we should be pursuing something else), let’s now turn to what we know about standards-based reform.

Modern education in U.S. has existed from and through a series of broad eras: From the 1890s and into mid-twentieth century (the foundational years of establishing standards as well as a factory, and thus standard, approach to public schooling), the volatile 1950s and 1960s with Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation establishing racial equity, and then the current accountability era begun in the 1980s, reinforced in 2001 with NCLB and later expanded under President Obama (again, the Bush and Obama agendas are indistinguishable from each other).

To be blunt, in fact, U.S. public education has never been absent arguments about what should be taught (both standards and curriculum) and how that should be taught, but the past thirty years have provided a solid research base on how accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing impacts education reform.

And that brings us to the second problem with both advocates and critics of Common Core: They never address what we know about standards-based education reform.

A significant research base along a wide range of political ideologies has been essentially ignored, primarily because Common Core advocates have successfully established a debate about Common Core itself and thus never allowed the necessary initial debate to occur: Are standards the problem, and thus, are better standards the solution?

The bad news for both standards critics and advocates is (i) the presence or quality of standards have no correlation with student achievement, (ii) standards-based reform fails to address equity, and (iii) standards-based reform linked to high-stakes accountability has asked less of students and teachers (Hout & Elliot, 2011French, Guisbond, & Jehlen, 2013; Loveless, 2012; Mathis, 2012; Whitehurst, 2009; Kohn, 2010de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Horn, 2013).

Educators and those who value universal public education are left with two difficult positions. One is that we have no political party, and the other is that we find ourselves outside the Common Core debate—demanding in both instances that we try something else, notably that we start by first identifying the causes of our problems so that our solutions have a chance of succeeding.

We re left with being rational, with calling upon evidence in the wider public debates, and to be honest, those are significant uphill battles in the U.S. where the irrational and unmerited thrive.

Common Core will not save our schools and our children, and neither will Common Core destroy our schools and our children—except that continuing either the pursuit of new standards or debating standards endlessly is a distraction guaranteeing we will never get to the work needed.