Obama’s Failed Education Policy: Symbolism Not Enough In Real World

Superhero comic book universes (popularly associated with DC and Marvel) have two key advantages over reality: reboots (returning to a hero’s origin and starting again—such as Frank Miller’s reboot of Batman in the mid-1980s and the film rebootings of Spider-Man and X-Men over the past 15 years or so) and alternate universes/realities.

The re-imagining of Spider-Man as bi-racial and Captain America as black are powerful contributions to the superhero genre of comic books—in part for the messages about race and in part because superhero comics have had lingering flaws in terms of race and gender since their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of these examples is that they represent the power of symbolism in the context of the imaginary commenting on reality.

In reality, however, we are trapped in a mostly linear existence, one that we attempt to qualify with “history repeats itself” or “those who ignore history are doomed to repeating the failures.”

Human advancements are incremental and rarely universal; some women in some places, for example, have achieved some level of equality with men, while many women remain prisoners of horrific misogyny and gruesome social oppression and abuse.

One lesson of the real world, then, may be that we must not allow the pursuit of perfect to keep us from clinging to something, something better, something creeping toward the ideal.

In a country that remains scarred by the inequity of racism, those people in the U.S. who advocate that the election of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial and self-identifying black man is an important symbolic moment in the nation are, I think, entirely justified—notably if we disassociate Obama’s status as president from his policies.

I struggle, however, with that disassociation—notably in terms of military actions/policy and education policy.

Obama’s education policy has continued a failed agenda begun under George W. Bush (an idealized bi-partisan agenda buoyed by the “bi-partisan” instead of credible educational research or authority), and then increased the very worst aspects of that legacy. Obama has now promised that those failures will last past his tenure:

The Obama administration is inviting states to apply to renew their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And according to guidance issued Thursday, these renewed waivers could last all the way through the 2018-2019 school year — locking down some of President Barack Obama’s education policy changes well into the next presidency.

Obama the symbol is undeniably important; Obama as an administration and set of educational policies is a baffling disaster for public education, the teaching profession, and (worst of all) students, specifically impoverished children and children of color.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embodies the failed discourse and punitive policies that are indistinguishable from W. Bush’s administration except under Obama, everything that is wrong with the policy has been increased: a greater commitment to standards, more testing, expanded blame placed on teachers, expanded shifting of public to private interests and mechanisms.

Under Obama, the U.S. has continued a scorched-earth policy in warmongering (smart bombs, drones) and in public education policy (school closings, teacher firings).

There is no symbolism there we can recover—only a harsh reality of failure and a legacy we can do without.

See Also

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures, P. L. Thomas

The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism? (IAP, 2011) — soon to be reissued and revised.

SC Parents Warned: “no state provision…to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing”

South Carolina is a hard-core right-wing state, often leaning Libertarian and almost always contradictory.

SC politicians push school choice while running against a woman’s right to choose. Now we learn that school choice advocacy in SC does not include parents’ right to choose whether or not their children participate in relentless testing.

According to a memo from the SC Department of Education and to district superintendents:

It has come to the attention of the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) that opt-out request forms are circulating around the state giving some parents the belief that they can opt their children out of state and federal testing requirements, among other things. With regard to testing, federal and state laws require that all students be included in South Carolina’s state assessment system.

There is no state provision for parents or eligible students (who are age eighteen or older) to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing….

With regard to any requests from parents for a school district to omit their children’s data from any district submission to the SCDE, neither federal nor state law allows a parent to opt-out of federal or state-required data collection processes, which is safeguarded by the SCDE.

While I have written often about the dangers of idealizing parental choice, it is certainly interesting to recognize the contradictory messages right-wing political leadership in SC sends about their own occasional support of choice (which reveals itself to be no real support of choice at all—only when it serves the interests of those leaders).

Parents, be warned.

My Redneck Past: A Brief Memoir of Two’s

If you’re afraid they might discover your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past

“Your Redneck Past,” Ben Folds Five

My maternal grandfather’s given name was Harold, but he went by “Slick.” As his first grandchild, however, I christened him “Tu-Daddy”—a child’s twisting of “two,” as in my second father.

But “two” also captures the two enduring images I have of him: (1) Harold/Slick lost his little finger on his left hand in the machinery of the yarn dyeing mill where he worked in the hills of North Carolina, and (2) virtually every time I saw him, Harold/Slick was barefoot—typically, sitting outside in nothing except a pair of cut-off jeans, silent and alone.

My name is also connected with “two” because I am a second, named after my paternal grandfather, Paul Lee Thomas, who people in my second hometown of Woodruff, SC, knew only as Tommy. And it was in second grade when my teacher, Mrs. Townsend, sent me into the hallway for arguing with her about my name.

When she took the first role (everyone in Woodruff knew everyone), Mrs. Townsend informed me that I was a junior, named after my father she stated with the assurance of a teacher, but I explained, “No, ma’am, I am named after my grandfather. I am a second.”

As was the case in my home, in school, children did not argue or correct adults so to the hall I went—although I was right, and she was wrong.

I was already petrified of Mrs. Townsend, a small woman, because I knew her husband, Corporal Townsend, a highway patrolman, whom I had met at my grandfather’s gas station that sat in the middle of town—the sign prominently stating, “Tommy’s 76.”

The yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina to the mill villages of Upstate South Carolina, then, are the fertile soil of my redneck past—working class families sometimes disrupted by alcoholism on one side and mostly living their lives with little or minimal formal education.

My mother finished one year of college (after attending 7 high schools because her family constantly moved), and my father graduated junior college (by then already with a full set of false teeth, having lost all his in high school). My father as an adult worked in machine shops, quality control, most of my childhood, and often came home with black grease under his fingernails and in the lines of his hands.

Even after retiring, my father worked in a machine shop part-time, under the weight of manual labor that taxed his arthritic shoulders (he depended on the kindness of his co-workers who often lifted parts for him).

This working-class upbringing that began for 6 or 7 years in Enoree, SC (nothing more than cross roads at the edge of the Enoree River) and then in Woodruff just to the north (a mill town with a wide main street that if you stood on one end you could see the other and the two stop lights along the way), however, was one of privilege as it was also nearly idyllic because my parents worked relentlessly to provide for my sister and me far above our working-class means.

The fruits of that work ethic in the 1960s and 1970s by working-class white families benefitted from a racial privilege in the South that working-class and working-poor families in the twenty-first century do not experience—primarily because of the shifts in racial demographics in how class has evolved in my lifetime.

However, my working-class background was real in the sense that my upbringing and eventual (and unusual for my family) series of college degrees resulting in a doctorate (all from state schools) have left me still extremely uncomfortable with affluence and imprinted on me a Southern drawl that many people continue to hold against me.

I am frequently accused of being ungrammatical when I talk (when I have not been), and I have even had students say directly to my face that I don’t sound smart—even though they know I am smart.

When students enter my university office, typically their first comment is—after scanning the entire wall of shelved books that loom over the small space—”Have you read all those books?” That seems unfathomable to these mostly affluent young people who do not suspect that this wall of books represents a very real self-defense mechanism of a permanent redneck.

You are damned right, I do not say, I have read all these books. Instead, I smile, explaining, “Of course, and there are this many more in my library at home.”

Formality, dressing up, fine dining, ceremony—all the trappings of upper-middle- and upper-class normality make me incredibly anxious, still—despite all my formal and informal education, however.

I am the embodiment of a powerful lesson about life: You can leave your redneck past behind, but you cannot erase your redneck past.

My formative years of junior and then high school included my uncle, aunts, and mother introducing me to The Firesign Theatre, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. Concurrent with those revelations, I was wrestling with my desire to be an athlete.

By the age of ten, I had moved with my family from downtown Woodruff to the golf course just outside of town—itself a contradiction as a very redneck country club, including its racially segregating policies (blacks were not allow to join).

I fluctuated, then, between two vastly different athletic worlds as I worked at being a golfer and a basketball player—a very white world coming against a very black world.

I lived on a golf course that excluded blacks, and in my home town, blacks literally lived across the tracks in a neighborhood called Pine Ridge.

In tenth grade, I was the only white player on a 13-person junior varsity basketball team. At that time, I was sitting often in my room listening to Carlin and Pryor comedy albums over and over—perfecting their routines and crafting my own dexterity with the power of profanity.

The gift of swearing (possibly my first defense mechanism to mask my crippling low self-esteem), of course, transferred seamlessly from the basketball court onto the golf course, but basketball courts and golf courses could have easily in the 1970s been two different planets.

Those two different planets, though, were better schools than the school I attended, where I made As and Bs, mostly floundering on the bench of the school basketball teams.

My working-class, redneck upbringing had two important features (“two” again): my world was mostly a racist one, and the language I grew up in and with was deeply engrained with what people consider non-standard grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

All of that collided, of course, with the education I was receiving from vinyl 33 1/3 albums that taught me lessons about race, class, and language that I was certainly not hearing in my home, community, or school.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I returned to Woodruff to teach English (of all things) at the high school where I had graduated just five years before. My students were from Cross Anchor (even smaller then Enoree), Enoree, and Woodruff—the people and places of my early life.

Throughout nearly two decades teaching there, racial tensions remained, and most of my students reflected back at me my tangled history with the English language. We often laughed in those high school classrooms—my students and I. We often laughed at ourselves.

When I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying aloud to my Advanced Placement students, we smiled, we laughed.

When I told them about the local news coverage of a tornado, and the person interviewed saying on air, “I knowed it, I seen it coming, it blowed the trailer off the cinder blocks,” we smiled, we laughed.

Many of the redneck white males I taught reminded me of my two grandfathers—slow moving, suspicious of everyone, and nearly silent.

A less funny joke of those years was that Woodruff was still 1957—frozen in time.

A few days ago, my Saturday cycling group took a course that rolled south of Spartanburg (the “city” of my childhood) into Enoree. When I told my friends I had grown up there, most were shocked; typically, I tell everyone I am from Woodruff.

Enoree that Saturday morning looked almost as it had when I was a child—except the mills are all dead, abandoned, just as they are throughout the back streets of Woodruff and all across the Upstate of SC.

I imagine people see poverty and my redneck past when they see Enoree or even Woodruff for the first time, but I certainly don’t.

I see a richness of memories—things I have overcome, things I carry with me still.

I imagine people hear a redneck when I talk aloud, despite my best effort to leave all that behind with book learning (I think of Huck Finn being berated by his abusive father).

These two places of my childhood were gifts, like my parents, precious gifts.

I often think of Tu-Daddy sitting alone, barefoot, turning a deep brown in the summer sun he adored.

Most of my childhood, he and my grandmother (people knew her as “Deed,” but we called her “Granny”) lived on a road named the same as their family name, “Sowers.”

A few acres were all that remained of a vast stretch of land once owned by their family before my grandfather.

I have watched as the world has pulled away from my working-class family. The poor, the working poor, and the working class have become sources of derision (not the friendly laughing at ourselves of my high school classes)—for their financial poverty, for their so-called poverty of language.

Like the two worlds of the golf course and the basketball court of my youth, two worlds have materialized around me as I have buried myself in books as a great escape from my redneck past.

And in the end, I am still that second grader, banished to the hall, embarrassed and frustrated because even when I am right, I feel inadequate, powerless.

I am the second, I think in a whisper, I am the second.

Parents and Language: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Middle-class and affluent parents are good because they pass on to their children good cultural capital (such as good literacy).

The Bad

Impoverished parents and working-poor parents are bad because they pass on to their children bad cultural capital (such as bad literacy).

The Ugly

Many, if not most people, in the U.S. embrace the above class- (and race-) based views of parenting and language (vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing).

This ugly social mythology is identified by Pierre Bourdieu in Acts of Resistance:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)

But these deficit views that feed an environment of victim blaming also have been echoed in the comment section of a recent piece of mine refuting those very deficit views (see the reposting and comments at The Washington Post‘s PostEverything).

The ugliness rests on two separate and related issues—parents and language.

Parenting: Good or Bad versus Scarcity or Slack

Within a cultural of individualism, perceptions of  good or bad parenting are strongly correlated with social class—as noted above. Unpacking why and how those perceptions exist reveals the ugliness.

Despite evidence to the contrary—evidence that shows class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort—impoverished parents are blamed as bad and affluent parents are praised as good when we assume that individual effort of those parents has determined their status.

The focus on the individual also feeds assumptions about whether or not parents can, will, or even want to provide the necessary care and initial teaching for their children. See this comment as one of several such claims:

Being poor is not the problem…..acceptance of poverty and the social position it implies is the problem. When the poor decide that they would like their children to be better off than their parents, efforts will be made in that direction…..but, if the poor decide to instill in their children the idea that being poor is better than being rich, and that the rich are the bad guys in the play, the poor will remain resentful and poor which will define them and their children.

What is often missing in all of this are the tight margins of living in scarcity (poverty) as compared to the slack of living in affluence.

For example, good but impoverished parents may appear to be “bad” when compared to poor or neglectful affluent parents who appear to be “good”—especially when we focus on proxies for the quality of parenting such as a child’s vocabulary.

Good and conscientious but impoverished parents, doing the best they can under the stress and within the tight margins of poverty, may be accurately associated with a non-standard home language, and as a result, their children may enter school with measurable literacy that is deemed behind affluent children, whose parents may have been neglectful. However, those affluent children raised in the slack of affluence may have had surrogate people and experiences that mask the weak parenting.

Impoverished parents, on the other hand, have all of their decisions and all of the factors outside of their control amplified negatively by their poverty; while affluent parents have their weaknesses masked or even mitigated by their affluence.

Class-based differences in child rearing are not “good” versus “bad,” as much as more affluent children’s rearing matches social expectations, ands thus appears “good” in that context. [1]

Poverty creates reduced circumstances, razor-thin margins, and relentless stress; as Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir note, people cannot take vacations from poverty.

Affluence, however, allows slack, an abundance of time and money that buffers mistakes, carelessness, and behaviors that would otherwise be considered “bad.”

Whether parents are “good” or “bad” is profoundly impacted by status (class and race)—more so than by individual qualities alone.

The Lingering, but Flawed, Connection Between Language and Character

The related ugly is our lingering, but flawed, connection between language and character. Many in the U.S. remain convinced that vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation are signals of not just intelligence but the “good” or “bad” in a person.

Non-standard English is associated with race and class, revealing more about our classism and racism than about linguistics or individual character (again, read the comments section linked above).

Deficit views of language perpetuate beliefs that the poor and racial minorities speak broken or inferior forms of English; that their language is not merely different, but inferior.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, a story told in letters. As impoverished, black women, Celie and Nettie create a rich tapestry of using language to confront and recreate their worlds. Walker’s novel, then, is a powerful rebuking of the belief that poverty and racial minorities are the provinces of flawed or deficient language.

The impoverished do not pass on “bad,” but socially marginalized language to their children; we must admit that non-standard forms of language trigger the dual ugliness of classism and racism in the U.S.

In 1963, novelist Ralph Ellison confronted this language stereotype directly:

“Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

Further, Ellison rejects the deficit view held about the language of poor blacks:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

Also unmasking deficit views of language related to class and race, in 1979, James Baldwin asked, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”:

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

Like Ellison, Baldwin recognizes poetry where others see deficit:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Ultimately, then, Baldwin states boldly his own recognition of the ugly:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And now we are still confronted with “the brutal truth,” as Baldwin puts it. Why do we cling to deficit views of poverty and language, and why are so many angry and bitter toward people—families and children—who find themselves in poverty—while simultaneously praising the affluent?

It may well be that neither the quantity or quality of words children bring to school nor that both are strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of those children’s parents matters as much as our cultural bitterness, callousness.

More important is how adults use words to demonize the marginalized and create an Other so that they do not have to confront themselves. [2] Again, if you doubt me, return to those comments that suggest to me that if we wish to judge parents by their children, there we have ample evidence to draw some pretty harsh conclusions.

[1] See Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, who explains about the differences in child rearing by class between middle-class and working-class/poor families:

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

[2] See the ugliest of ugly here.