Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Valerie Strauss has raised a key problem with the education reform movement in the U.S.: The central experts in the education system, teachers, are essentially ignored.

I have a long history now of rejecting the charter school movement and the “no excuses” ideology that is driving many charter schools. Because of my position, I have been criticized for not visiting KIPP schools and I have detailed why that falls short against my central point about the racism and classism inherent in “no excuses” ideology.

So I want to offer a connection between my position on charters and “no excuses” with listening to a teacher.

I received an unsolicited email from a teacher who has recently taught in a “no excuses” charter school; this is the teacher’s central point:

Their system does not work. Their philosophy is to teach the kids over extended hours at school. We taught from 8:00-4:00 every day. The teachers have added responsibilities on top of those hours. Then most children went to after school care where they continued teaching and received dinner [1]. Guess what our report card score is? It’s an F.

The children were worn out all the time. The parents expected us to take care of the children no matter what. One day I had a parent not pick up their child and I was expected to stay at school until their parents came for their child. After calling every number I had, no one arrived to pick him up until 7:15 at night.

I have never seen such chaos in all my years of teaching.

Disillusioned, this teacher has moved to a different school, but I find the story and impressions hit on exactly what is wrong with “no excuses” ideologies: the unnecessarily harsh school environments for students and teachers, the remaining disconnect among all the stakeholders, and the inevitable negative consequences of relying on accountability metrics to determine if a school is successful or not.

If you still feel compelled not to listen to me, then at least listen to this teacher.

[1] Please consider this in the context of the teacher’s experience: A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

The MLK Imperative in an Era of “No Excuses”

My father was a hard-ass, €”a Southern version of the Red Forman-type made popular in That 70’s Show. I grew up, then, in a “no excuses” environment rooted in the 1950s work ethic my father personified. [1]*

Mine was a working-class background: My paternal grandfather (for whom I was named) ran the small-town gas station where I grew up, and my maternal grandfather worked in the yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina.

Way before the “no excuses” ideology consumed the education reform movement of the 21st century, “no excuses” ruled my childhood and teen years. My behavior at home and school? No excuses. My academic achievement? No excuses.

Two important realizations, however, stem from that childhood and young adulthood of mine.

First, most of my academic, scholarly, and personal success occurred in spite of (not because of) that “no excuses” upbringing.

And second, in retrospect I recognize that the central element in that success, feeding my working-class roots, was enormous privilege driven by the coincidences of my being male, white, and possessing the academic acumen preferred by social and educational norms.

Privilege, Humility, and Community

Nestled somewhat silently and invisibly beneath the “no excuses” atmosphere of my childhood was two wonderfully loving parents €”and a culture of literacy that can clearly be identified as the source of my academic success.

The line from Dr. Seuss to Kurt Vonnegut is being necessarily oversimplified here, but from my earliest recollections, I loved reading and books. And by my late adolescence and young adulthood, I became an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, through whom I came to know alternative views of history (Sacco and Vanzetti by way of Jailbird, for example).

The most powerful lesson I have drawn from Vonnegut, however, has been the words, life, and actions of Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

From Debs I have come to understand that anyone’s privilege is the foundation for humility, not arrogance (no “I deserve this unlike others” attitude), and that all people bestowed with privilege should feel compelled to work diligently for the equity of others, with Debs’ works and life serving as models.

The key to that understanding of and praxis drawn from privilege is my embracing critical pedagogy:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)

My critical commitment, then, to equity is grounded in my work as an educator and scholar as well as my foundational focus on democracy, equity, and agency.

And it is there that I now turn to examining the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative in an era of “no excuses.”

Claim One: Poverty and Privilege Are Destiny

“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”

While this and other slogans are culturally compelling, factually in the U.S., poverty is destiny, and that reality is often as much linked to socioeconomic status as race.

Some acknowledgement exists for the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues poor and minority students; for example, the Justice Department in Mississippi has concluded, as Ferriss reports:

The suit alleges that the state, county and city “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,” said a Department of Justice press release.  “As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, I fear, is ultimately an inadequate metaphor for the current “no excuses” policies in many high-poverty and high-minority public and charter schools that are better described with schools-as-prisons.To understand the need to change the metaphor, we must first acknowledge that in the U.S. white males outnumber Latino and African American males about 3 to 1, but in U.S. prisons, Latino and African American males outnumber white males about 10 to 1.

The race and class implications of the causes behind these data are captured, I think, in James Baldwin’s assessment in “No Name in the Street” (1972):

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….€

The blurring of public institutions used for control instead of their democratic purposes has been questioned by Michel Foucault:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (Discipline & Punish, 1975)

The evidence that poverty is destiny is disturbingly reflected in our schools. Pre-kindergarten expulsions—€”overwhelmingly male and then disproportionately African American males—€”foreshadow our imprisonment inequities; and our “no excuses” school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, have directly transformed the school-to-prison pipelines into schools-as-prisons:

These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond….

Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling. Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways

While “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) issued a manifesto claiming that a child’s ZIP code does not determine access to educational quality, several recent studies show that ZIP code determines a child’s school [2], and then that school’s policies and quality further entrench that child’s future. For many African American males, ZIP code determines school quality and then that school experience is both like prison and a precursor to prison.These damning facts associated with schools, however, are but microcosms of larger social inequities. The U.S. is no longer a model of social mobility (Sawhill & MortonNorton & Ariely), and the U.S. ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrialized countries in the percentage of childhood poverty, well over 20%.

Public schools in the U.S. fail in two ways that are masked by claims that “poverty is not destiny” and school reform alone will allow schools to reform society: (1) Schools reflect the inequities of the wider society, and (2) schools perpetuate social inequities.

One of the most powerful examples of how schools reflect society is that student achievement is correlated between 60% and over 80% with out-of school factors (BerlinerJoseph Rowntree Foundation, ETS 2007 and 2009).

Yet, the current agenda coming from the NER remains blind to social realities and the inadequacy of their reform agenda, as Berliner explains:

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.

Claim Two: “No Excuses” Reform Entrenches Status Quo of Inequity

The discourse of NER has successfully framed a “failed public schools” narrative that receives the shorthand “status quo.” A central part of that narrative is built on the argument that school reform alone can change society, but these claims, in fact, create a logic problem for NER: For schools to change society (and for which there is no evidence this has ever happened), those schools must be unlike the society, yet both public schools and NER mirror and perpetuate social inequities:

Public School Problem
“No Excuses”€ Reform
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-under-certified teachers
Assign poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified)
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Common Core State Standards linked to new tests to create a standards-based testing and accountability system
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Federal government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Rename high-poverty schools “academy”€ or “€œmagnet”€ schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “€œno excuses” charters named “€œhope”€ or “€œpromise”€ [see above]
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Erase experienced teachers and replace with inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits [see above]
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned to teachers rewarded for teaching 40-1 student-teacher ratio classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Poor and Latino/Black students segregated into test-prep charter schools; special needs and ELL students disregarded [left for public schools to address; €”see column to the left]
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Teacher preparation rejected at the expense of content and pedagogy
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education [most of whom have no experience as educators] misinform and mishandle education
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above]: Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above and the column to the left]: NER reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society

For example, the opting out of NCLB policy under the Obama administration successfully combines the failures of traditional public schooling with the failures of “no excuses” ideology, notably the senseless consequences of the NCLB waiver in New Jersey:

Demographic Composition of New Jersey’s Priority, Focus and Reward Schools

Classification
# of Schools
Black/Latino
Free/Reduced Lunch
ELL
Student Mobility Rate
Priority
75
97%
81%
7%
24%
Focus
183
72%
63%
10%
15%
Reward
112
20%
15%
2%
5%

NER advocates depend on a narrative maintaining a focus on a fabricated status quo of failed public education in order to continue the same failures of that status quo under the mask of NER.

Claim Three: Social Context Reform Seeks Equity

While often discredited by NER narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers (SCR) are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argues SCR.

SCR is committed to the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:

“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Instead of calling again for indirectly addressing inequity and poverty (NER), SCR seeks to reform directly both society and education:

Social Context Reform
Social Commitments to Equity
School-based Commitments to Equity
Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children
End high-stakes testing and accountability; implement teacher/school autonomy and transparency (what schools offer and how v. student outcomes)
Childhood family food security
End labeling and sorting students
Stable and well-paying work for families (reform healthcare so jobs and healthcare are not linked); increase worker’s right and empowerment
Insure equitable teacher assignments
Re-commit to fully funding and supporting universal public education
Confront inequitable discipline policies and outcomes related to race, gender, and class
Insure universal public college access for all students
Reject the traditional deficit perspectivedriving public schooling and reflecting cultural deficit view of poverty
Honor and support school, teacher, and student AUTONOMY (current accountability culture is about complianceanti-democratic)

The King imperative, address poverty and inequity directly, must be acknowledged and embraced; the first step to direct action is to unmask the paradoxes of NER.

Ellison and Baldwin Speak to the King Imperative

Ralph Ellison’s address to teachers in 1963 exposes that social and educational failures have been historically intertwined, as he confronted “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.”

Ellison asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” concluding:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Embedded in the narratives of Ellison, and James Baldwin (see blow), are the threads that show education is not experiencing a crisis, but a systemic reality of the inequity in the culture and institutions of the U.S. We have no “achievement gap,” but we do have an equity gap that metrics such as the “achievement gap” reflect. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” an allegory of privilege, exposes that privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery. (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

This SF allegory is the story of the U.S., the story of ignoring the oppressed child that our privilege depends on by acknowledging “it,” or simply walking away.

As James Baldwin states in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” (1948): “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….”

NER in education maintains the idealism that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the rugged individualism myth in order to pursue the King imperative that we seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform that is then wedded to educational reform.

We must no longer justify inequity with our privilege, and taking an objective, apolitical pose is a “walking away” we can no longer afford.

Direct action is the only solution to the problem of inequity.

* This is a reposting from October 27, 2012, in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

[1] This blog is a narrative/expository version of a talk I delivered at the University of Arkansas on 18 October 2012; you can view the presentation PP here.

[2] See (a) “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; (b) The Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools”; and (c) “Is Demography Still Destiny?” from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Class Grades

Since I am quick to criticize the media for its role in the failures of the current education reform movement—such as PBS, The Charleston Post and Courier, and Education Week—I must also recognize when a media outlet provides much needed insight into education policy that has clearly run off the tracks, such as the so-called Florida miracle and the enduring practice of assigning letter grades to schools.

In “Low-income schools struggle under state’s grading system” (Miami Herald, August 10, 2013), Michael Vasquez and David Smiley offer a clear but disturbing picture of accountability in Florida:

With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.

The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.

Vasquez and Smiley, along with the Miami Herald, represent a needed aspect of journalism addressing education reform: Recognizing large and compelling patterns, and thus the consequences of education policy.

The analysis of assigning letter grades to schools in Florida exposes some important conclusions:

•  Although high poverty rates don’t necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).

•  Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.

•  Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.

Despite efforts to identify educational quality among schools by focusing on growth models, data used in accountability policies remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors. Further, the schools that sit outside the typical patterns are rightfully identified by Vasquez and Smiley as “outliers.”

This analytical report on letter grades for schools in Florida is a strong example of quality journalism that seeks out and presents complex and detailed evidence, placing that data in the broader context of the many factors that impact not only the evidence we gather on our schools but also what conclusions we draw as well as how we draw those conclusions.

In the article, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explains, “‘Just as much as poverty can’t be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral.'”

Rare is the news article that allows a perspective this complex.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in several grand promises in 2001, such as closing the achievement gap, but one of the central requirements of the legislation—the use of scientifically based research—is now poised to dismantle the entire accountability movement, including policies such as labeling schools with letter grades based primarily on test scores.

The evidence is clear that thirty years of accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing has failed. The next step is composing and sharing a unified message of that fact, while also building a coalition to reset the reform agenda so that we address poverty, equity, and opportunity in the lives of children and their families as well as in the schools those children attend.

Innocence or Guilt?: Looking Beyond the Individual

The court room presents a powerful narrative focusing on the innocence or guilt of an accused individual. In the U.S. judicial system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and this principle is embraced as a foundational commitment to individual freedom.

The George Zimmerman trial, however, prompted for many concerns about the effectiveness and objectivity of that judicial system, including fears that jury trials reflect the biases of the jurors and that the victim, Trayvon Martin, was unfairly put on trial as well. Debates also included a convoluted discussion of the laws themselves surrounding the case, notably the stand your ground laws in Florida. If the laws themselves are flawed or inherently corrupt, how can a trial be just?

The court of public opinion is no less focused on individual innocence or guilt. In the education reform movement, a number of scandals have exposed flawed leaders and dysfunctional systems—Michelle Rhee’s reign as chancellor of DC public schools, Tony Bennett’s role in changing school grades in Indiana, a cheating scandal in Atlanta, and misleading tests scores in New York. Each of these individual people and circumstances lends itself to holding one person or a unique situation accountable, but just as any trial can disproportionately focus blame on an individual, it is careless and ultimately dangerous to ignore the wider accountability era while laying (often justifiable) blame at the feet of Rhee, Bennett, Atlanta public school administrators, or the newest testing process in NY.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader confronts readers with the lingering historical horrors of the Holocaust while also weaving an allegory of justice. A central character, Hanna Schmitz, develops a taboo but compelling relationship with a German teen, Michael Berg, many years after she has served as an SS guard at Auschwitz. In the middle section of the novel, Schmitz is on trial for her role at the concentration camp, and the readers of the novel discover that Schmitz’s passion for having Berg read to her grows from her own illiteracy, a key element in how the trial portrays her innocence or guilt.

Readers of Schlink’s novel are likely left torn about Schmitz’s guilt, possibly in ways similar to public opinion about Zimmerman. Schlink, as a lawyer and judge, seems as interested in the larger allegory of justice as he is about the specific horrors of who is culpable for the Holocaust. In fact, the novel suggests that innocence and guilt are not simple, not easily reduced to the acts or decisions of an individual.

Is it possible, the novel asks, that Schmitz is guilty in a nuanced way that is grounded in her illiteracy and the perverse and dehumanizing culture surrounding the Holocaust? Is it then possible that Schmitz is simultaneously guilty but also a victim of forces larger than her?

While I am suggesting no direct comparison between the accountability era and the Holocaust in terms of magnitude, I am compelled to recognize that the allegorical message of The Reader helps inform the potential mistake being layered onto the individual failures represented by Rhee, Bennett, the Atlanta cheating scandal, and the NY test data: Each of these people or circumstances is both an example of individual or situational failures and clear messages about the larger inherently flawed accountability era based on standards, high-stakes testing, and individual accountability (schools, districts, teachers, and students).

Let’s just focus on two recent failures in the accountability era—Bennett and NY test scores. Both, I am convinced, are evidence of specific failures and possibly even unethical behavior by people in power. And I would argue that Bennett and those responsible for testing in NY should all be held accountable for their decisions, actions, and misrepresentations about children, teacher, and schools to the public.

Ultimately, however, that isn’t nearly enough. Assigning grades to schools and all high-stakes testing are the problems; thus, high-stakes testing as a mechanism for labeling, sorting, and ranking schools, teachers, and children is the larger flawed system that Bennett and NY test scores represent.

In the passive voice parlance of avoiding culpability found in the courtroom, it is likely that for Rhee and Bennett “mistakes were made.”

But political, media, and public concern for these individual errors must not end with their individual culpability.

Accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are dehumanizing, counter to genuine teaching and learning, and corrosive to universal public education, democracy, and individual liberty. With this lesson standing before us, then, it is unconscionable to continue down the road of Common Core and “next generation” national tests.

It is no longer credible to argue about how best to implement Common Core, how best to implement new tests, or how best to analyze that data from those tests. It is time to end an era of misguided accountability.

Even under the weight of forces larger and more powerful than any one of us, we must make a decision to confront and end a failed system, and that system is the accountability era begun thirty years ago, but now has proven itself a failure.

Imagine 2013

I am no John Lennon, but I think it is appropriate to imagine an education system and an education reform movement that create teaching and learning experiences for all students based on evidence and the experiences and expertise of educators, scholars, and researchers.

So let’s imagine that system, and consider just a few possibilities.

First, what about gathering student feedback on teachers or attempting to evaluate teachers based on pre- and post- test data within a high-stakes accountability environment? Kornell explains about some recent research:

The authors speculate that the more experienced professors tend to “broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material.” (p. 430) That is, because they don’t teach directly to the test, they do worse in the short run but better in the long run.

To summarize the findings: because they didn’t teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance. To me, these results were staggering, and I don’t say that lightly.

Next, let’s imagine a reform movement not built on false claims of standards-driven reform for international competitiveness. As Mathis explains:

Standards advocates argue that common standards are necessary for keeping the nation competitive in a global economy. But this brief points out that research does not support this oft-expressed rationale. No studies support a true causal relationship between national standards and economic competitiveness, and at the most superficial level we know that nations with centralized standards generally tend to perform no better (or worse) on international tests than those without. Further, research shows that national economic competitiveness is influenced far more by economic decisions than by test scores.

Let’s imagine reform that seeks to address equity in the lives and schooling of all children, as Holzman clarifies:

Most people, particularly most African-Americans, are familiar with this situation. The question is, then, what is to be done to end disproportionate black poverty?

The common response to the question is a resort to the American doctrine of individual responsibility. Issues of culture, community and psychology are, no doubt, important contributors to differing levels of achievement in education as well as to the disparities in incarceration rates. We are told that young black men should pull up their socks (and their trousers) and simply do better in school and act better in the community. Examples of “beating the odds” and “resiliency” are featured by the media, foundations, community groups and inspirational speakers. These responses are ways of blaming the victims of racism and each in their own manner is a way of maintaining the system of racism. On the other hand, institutional policy decisions are clearly causal, definable and quantifiable and, possibly, given the public will, amenable to change.

The goal, after all, is not for individuals to beat the odds. The goal is to change the odds, or, rather, to change the game.

And let’s imagine a culture of compassion and opportunity, not a “no excuses” mantra that calls for more and tougher, recognizing the harsh realities discovered by Aguero and Beleche:

Estimating the impact of changing school inputs on student performance is often difficult because these inputs are endogenously determined. We investigate a quasi-experiment that altered the number of instructional days prior to a nationwide test in Mexico. Our exogenous source of variation comes from across states and over time changes in the date when the school year started and the date when the test was administered. We find that having more days of instruction prior to examination slightly improves student performance but exhibits diminishing marginal returns. The effects vary along the distribution of resources as determined by a poverty index, with lower improvements in poorer schools. These findings imply a weaker net benefit of policies expanding the length of the school year as they could widen the achievement gap by socioeconomic status.

Is it too much to imagine a reform strategy that doesn’t trap us in a false dichotomy of doing nothing versus doing the wrong thing—such as the false choice of punitive retention of 3rd graders versus just passing them along?:

SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading policy or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the “Florida Miracle” has been thoroughly discredited, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention has no positive outcomes but many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.

And finally let’s imagine a public that comes to respect the experience and expertise of educators, life-long public servants, and recognizes the dishonesty and self-serving motives of Rhee, Kopp, Gates, Duncan, et al., who collectively have neither expertise or experience—but most stunning of all, their claims and reform agendas lack evidence, as Camins carefully details:

There are two pillars of Department of Education policy:  increased numbers of charter schools and consequential use of standards-based assessment for promotion and employment decisions. Rather than citing evidence of causal connections to substantive changes in educational inequity, supporters claim state and local adoption of these reforms as progress and accuse critics of defending the status quo.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has declared many times that he believes in using data. I do too. Several features of that status quo are unarguable. Evidence suggests two conditions that contribute to lower average levels of achievement of poor and lower-middle class students.  First, on average the conditions of their lives mean that compared to their more well off peers, they enter and continue through school with fewer supports for learning and greater stress that impedes learning.  Parents’ socioeconomic status and educational attainment level — in other words poverty — explain a very substantial portion of the variation in students’ level of achievement and predicts future employment and income. Second, teacher experience and expertise are not equally distributed across schools.

I will argue that the pillars of current education reform are more likely to preserve rather than change the status quo. Further, there are alternative policies that are more likely to mediate educational inequity, creating real rather than illusory movement. None of the pillars of reform will address either of these conditions at scale.  Instead, they merely give some students a competitive advantage.   Even if reforms redistribute these benefits or slightly alter the size of the advantaged group, they are still essentially maintaining the status quo, creating the illusion of movement, without fundamental change.

“You, you may say/ I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

The Bully Politics of Education Reform

America is a bully nation.

America is the embodiment of might-makes-right. When another country (USSR) invades Afghanistan, America is filled with righteous indignation, but when America invades Afghanistan, well, all is right with the world.

America has bred the bully tactic of vigilantism in the sanctified Petri dish of law (Stand Your Ground), and the result is the person with the gun is the law while the victim’s innocence is extinguished along with the person’s life.

To mask the bully culture of the U.S., bullying is confronted as a school-based problem among children (note the distraction of the R rating in the documentary on bullying addressed by Nancy Flanagan and Douglas Storm). Yet, the exact ruling class who denounces bullying among children are themselves bullies.

So there is no surprise that the current education reform movement is characterized by bully politics.

NCTQ: Teaching Teachers a Lesson

In the mid-1800s, public education was called a “’dragon. . .devouring the hope of the country as well as religion. [It dispenses] ‘Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism,’” explains Jacoby (2004, pp. 257-258). Bullying public education, then, has long roots, at least stretching back to the threat of universal public schooling detracting from the Catholic church’s control of education in the nineteenth century.

From there, the bullying of public schools continued, judging the quality of our public schools based on drop-out rates (Get adjusted, 1947). We must recognize that the demonizing of public schools and the condemnation of school quality are the way we talk about and view schools in the U. S. as popular discourse and understanding, but this historical badgering of schools has evolved recently into a more direct and personal attack on teachers.

While it appears we cringe when children bully each other, we have no qualms about inexpert, inexperienced, and self-proclaimed education reformers bullying an entire profession.

While the bullying can be witnessed in the discourse coming from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and billionaire-reformer Bill Gates, one of the most corrosive and powerful dynamics embracing bully politics is the rise of self-appointed think-tank entities claiming to evaluate and rank teacher education programs. A key player in bully politics is the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

NCTQ represents, first, the rise of think tanks and the ability of those think tanks to mask their ideologies while receiving disproportionate and unchallenged support from the media.

Think tanks have adopted the format and pose of scholarship, producing well crafted documents filled with citations and language that frame ideology as “fair and balanced” conclusions drawn from the evidence.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

NCTQ grew out of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Education Leaders Council (ELC), which is associated with the Center for Education Reform, securing in the process unsolicited federal funds (over $9 million under George W. Bush).

In short, NCTQ is not an unbiased and scholarly enterprise to evaluate and reform teacher education. NCTQ is a right-wing, agenda-driven think tank entity determined to marginalize and discredit teacher education in order to promote a wide range of market-based ideologies related specifically to public education.

Further, and powerfully connected to the bully politics of NCTQ, is the association between NCTQ and U.S. News & World Report. In other words, NCTQ lacks educational and scholarly credentials and credibility, but gains its influence and power through direct and indirect endorsements from government, the media, and entrepreneurs (re: Gates foundation and funding).

NCTQ has released one report on student teaching. and a self-proclaimed national review of teacher preparation programs is scheduled for June 2013.

How, then, is this bully politics?

In both reports, NCTQ contacts departments and colleges of education with a simple but blunt request: Cooperate with us or we’ll evaluate you however we can, and publish our report regardless. These requests demand extensive data from the departments and colleges, and then subject these programs to standards and expectations designed by NCTQ completely decontextualized from the departments and colleges being “evaluated” against those standards. In other words, the basis for NCTQ’s evaluations have not been vetted by anyone for being credible. A department or college could very well be rated high or low and that rating mean little since the department or college may or may not consider the criteria of any value.

In fact, the first report by NCTQ has been reviewed (most think tank reports receive tremendous and uncritical coverage without review, and when reviewed, those reviews tend to receive almost no media coverage), confirming that NCTQ produces biased and careless work. Benner’s review concludes, in part:

The NCTQ review of student teaching is based upon the assumption that it is not only possible, but also worthwhile and informative to isolate student teaching from the totality of a teacher preparation program. This notion is in direct conflict with the perspective that effective teacher education programs avoid the isolation of pedagogy and classroom management content, offering such knowledge and skills within a learning environment centered upon a clinical experience.

The sample of programs cannot be characterized as representative based on any statistical standard or recognized sampling technique. The problems include disproportionate samples, artificial restrictions, selection bias toward the weakest programs within universities, lack of clarity regarding sample size, and unsound selection procedures for the sample-within-sample. The problems with data collection include how the ratings were derived, how site visit destinations were selected and how the site visits were used in the data analysis, and how principals were surveyed and/or interviewed.

Limitations in the development and interpretation of the standards, sampling techniques, methodology, and data analysis unfortunately negate any guidance the work could have offered the field and policy makers. However, the fact that this particular review is ill-conceived and poorly executed does not mean that all is well in teacher education. The education of future teachers can be greatly improved by increased selectivity of the students admitted into teacher preparation programs, strengthened clinical experiences woven into the study of teaching and learning, increased demand for teachers to have strong content knowledge and understanding of content-specific instructional strategies, and stricter enforcement of program approval standards.

NCTQ, espcially in its relationship with the media, appears more concerned about creating an appearance of failure within tecaher education than with genuinely addressing in a scholarly way what works, what doesn’t work, and how to reform teacher education.

The bully depends on status—the weight of appointment, designation—and the threat of wielding that power regardless of credibility. The bully depends on repetition and volume of claims over the confirmation of evidence or logic.

The current education reform movement is in the hands of bullies and in the vortex of bully politics. Left unchecked, bullying is incredibly effective for the benefit of the bullies and detrimental to everyone else.

Calling out the bullies, however, is possible and even relatively simple since the bully has nothing genuine to stand on.

In the long run, truth trumps bullying, but truth cannot win in the cloak of silence and inaction.

The States: More Bully Politics of Education Reform

From South Carolina to New Jersey to Wisconsin—and all across the U.S.—universal public education is under assault by the bully politics of education reform.

In my home state of South Carolina, Governor Haley and Superintendent Zais, neither of whom have experience or expertise in education, are seeking to attack unions (although SC is a non-union, right-to-work state), increase education testing through adopting Common Core State Standards (CCSS), deprofessionalize teachers through new accountability and merit-pay schemes, and cripple public schools by endorsing expanded choice initiatives.

Tractenberg details a similar pattern in New Jersey:

Gov. Chris Christie wastes no opportunity to trash Newark’s public schools. His assaults continued recently at a national school choice conference, where he and odd-couple partner Mayor Cory Booker were featured speakers.

Aside from Christie’s well-known penchant for confrontation, there are two big problems with his attacks.

First, he insists on citing “facts” that are either flat-out wrong or cherry-picked to emphasize the worst in Newark’s schools. An education expert recently questioned why those promoting school choice often use the best charter schools to characterize all charter schools and the worst regular public schools to characterize all those schools.

The situation is even more grim in Wisconsin, home of the relentless Governor Walker:

Walker is the archetypical bully. He has plenty of insecurities as a possible suspect in a John Doe case and as a college dropout–which necessitates his attacks on the ‘liberal’ academics. Self-esteem issues explain his need to repeatedly remind us how ‘courageous’ he has been and how he is like Ronald Reagan. Walker, like most bullies, yearns for status—which explains his national speaking tour.  Most blatantly bullying is Walker’s ‘divide and conquer’ management style (openly advertised to one of his billionaire campaign donors).

No group is better skilled at handling bullies, like Walker, than public educators. Teachers have much experience managing bullies in schools. We are trained in anti-bullying tactics. We have intervened in bullying situations and we advise our students on how to counter bullying. It is now time for Wisconsin’s teachers to embrace what we teach our students.

Steve Strieker, then, calls for a response in Wisconsin that every educator should heed: “Public educators must not be bystanders to Walker’s bullying.” Part of the action educators must take is to identify the hypocrisy and lack of credibility coming from the current leaders in the call to reform schools along “no excuses” and corporate ideologies.

Bully Bravado Masks Inexperience, No Expertise, and Hypocrisy

Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, and State Superintendents of Education historically and currently have used their bully pulpits to speak to and directly influence public education in the U.S. and in each state. In the twenty-first century, billionaires, millionaires, athletes, and celebrities have increasingly joined those political leaders by adopting education as their hobby. Among all of these elites, several patterns expose their combined failure to understand the problems facing and solutions needed for education—despite their elitist status that allows them power and prestige in the education debate. Those patterns expose these leaders’ hypocrisy and lack of credibility and include the following:

• Most of these leaders experienced educational advantages unlike the schools they hope to create by dismantling public schools. Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Mitt Romney, for example, enjoyed the luxury of low student-teacher ratios, but claim class size doesn’t matter (although class size does matter). The hypocrisy of the “no excuses” reformers reveals that these people living in privilege have a different standard for other people’s children.

• Most of these leaders have never taught a day in their lives, and have no background in education other than their appointments and self-proclamations as educators. Sal Khan—like Duncan, Gates, and the governors across the nation—for example, has been anointed “educator” and “innovator” without having ever taught, without holding any degrees in education.

• Most of these leaders have either a weak or nonexistent grasp on the current knowledge and research-base for teaching and learning. Further, like Christie, when these reformers call on evidence, they either cherry-pick, distort, or misrepresent the data. Recently, Superintendent Zais (SC) discounted paying teachers for years of experience or advanced degrees since, as he claimed, those two characteristic do not correlate positively with higher student test scores. But Zais does endorse merit pay, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers/tuition tax credits—all of which have the same correlation with higher student test scores as his claim about experience and advanced degrees.

With these patterns in mind, educators must consider directly the situation in Wisconsin, where a recall highlights the power of action, and possibly highlights yet again the negative influence of passive educators.

Wisconsin, along with SC and New Jersey, is not just one state in the union, but a very real crucible of democracy. Educators and citizens across the U.S. must not ignore that an attack on public schools, public school teachers, and public school students is an attack on democracy.

Democracy is not just an ideal, it is an act of the individual fully committed to the community.

References

Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time.

Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Note

Reposting of two separate blogs from 2012—The Bully Politics of Education Reform and The States: More Bully Politics of Education Reform

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Gandhi’s views on enhancing the vernaculars…so that Indians are “not foreigners in their own land” are directly tied to his opinions on developing communities (for “the poorest of the poor” ) and making community service an integral part of any education. (Ramanathan, 2006, pp. 235-236)

Standing in the middle of the road offers some statistical advantage to avoiding being run over since you aren’t in the prescribed lanes of traffic, but standing in the middle of the road can never assure the safety that refusing to walk into the road to begin with does.

Writing about a call for a moratorium on implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS) from union leadership, Anthony Cody ends his blog post with three questions:

What do you think? Should we join Randi Weingarten in pushing for one year’s delay in the harsh consequences attached to Common Core assessments? Will this year put the project on sound footing?

These questions about CCSS have been joined by two other calls for compromise and civility—Matthew Di Carlo challenging charges that value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation are “junk science” and Jennifer Jennings penning an apology to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for protests at his 2013 talk at American Educational Research Association (AERA). [1]

Weingarten, Di Carlo [2], and Jennings share a call for standing in the middle of the road, a quest for ways to compromise, and these all appear reasonable positions. Ultimately, however, moratoriums, compromise, and civility are all concessions to the current education reform movement and the policies at the center of those reforms, specifically CCSS and VAM.

Teachers as Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Briefly, I want to identify how arguments about a CCSS moratorium, implementing VAM properly and cautiously, and the need for civility are concessions that render teachers foreigners in their own profession.

As long as the debate about CCSS and VAM remain how best to implement them, the essential questions remain unasked, and the agenda behind both are assured success. While I want to address the civility argument next, let me note here that calls for CCSS and VAM are inherently civil and derogatory, exposing the myopic concern for the civility of those rejecting Duncan’s discourse and policies.

The implied and stated messages of calls for CCSS and more high-stakes testing include the following: (1) Teachers do not know what to teach, or how, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

The implied and stated messages of calls for VAM and merit pay include the following: (1) The most urgent problem at the core of educational outcomes is teacher quality, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

Calls for CCSS and VAM also share another implied and stated message: Failed educational outcomes are the result of in-school deficiencies; in effect, out-of-school factors are irrelevant in the pursuit of education reform.

These messages are factually false and, despite the civility of the language, irrevocably offensive.

Standing in the middle of the road of bureaucratic, accountability-based school reform, then, may decrease the likelihood of being run over, but it concedes the road itself to those who have built it, to those who govern the laws of transportation.

To answer Cody’s second and third questions, then, No. And now to his first.

Civility: Standing in the Middle of the Road of Accountability

The call for civility exposes a foundational problem with the current education reform debate because, for all practical purposes, there is no debate.

Civility, CCSS, and VAM may all have some appeal in theory, but all of them fall apart in reality, in their implementation.

Civility is the last recourse of the powerful, those who can afford to appear civil because they hold all the power.

Through the lens of history, we must recognize that CCSS will become “what is testing is what is taught,” as all standards movements have shown.

VAM also sits in a long history of the corrosive consequences of stack ranking, merit pay, and competition.

And this brings us back to standing in the middle of someone else’s road.

Education reform and policy have been historically and are currently under the control of political and corporate leadership who are not educators—many of whom did not even attend public schools, many of whom send their own children to schools unlike the environments they promote and implement.

The locus of power in education is catastrophically inverted; thus, we do not need more or different mechanisms for accountability-based education reform, but we do need a new era of non-cooperation.

The goal of non-cooperation must include seeking ways in which to shift the priorities of the locus of power:

  • First, the central locus of power in education is the student, situated in her/his home and community.
  • Next in importance is the locus of power afforded the teacher in her/his unique classrooms.
  • These must then merge for a locus of power generated within the community of the school.
  • Finally, the locus of power in this school-based community must radiate outward.

A Call for Non-Cooperation

Non-cooperation, as found in the philosophy and actions of Gandhi, represents another inversion—away from in-school only education reform and toward, as Ramanathan explains, “communal and educational change”:

As is evident, the take on “education” presented here is not the usual one—of teaching and learning in formal contexts of classrooms and institutions—but one that is intended to move us toward becoming collectively open to realizing that very valuable “education” often goes on outside the constraints of classrooms: in ashrams, in madrassas, in extracurricular programs, by local, politically minded youth, all drawing on local vernacular ways of healing rifts. Indeed, “education” in both these institutions is civic and community education that seems to assume Gandhian ideals of “Non-Cooperation” (and nonformal education) and that is aimed at primarily effecting changes in the community, sometimes before addressing issues relevant to formal education. (p. 230)

Non-cooperation, then, moves beyond a call for teacher autonomy; instead, non-cooperation is the act of the autonomy by “people directly involved” (Ramanathan, p. 231):

Not only do they have Gandhi’s larger philosophy of Non-Cooperation against political hegemonies  [emphasis added] at their core…, but they also opened up for me a way of understanding both how Gandhianism is situated and how particular dimensions of the identities of participants (Kanno, 2003; Menard-Warwick, 2005; Norton, 2000; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004) get laminated. I was able to see how Gandhianism is first collaboratively interpreted in workshops, then applied and translated on the ground in most local of contexts, and then recast and reinterpreted by individuals and groups as they regroup. (Ramanathan, p. 232)

Non-cooperation is a new paradigm that begins with those most directly impacted by the institution (here, education)—parents, students, teachers. In other words, the people most directly impacted ask the foundational questions: Do we need formal education? And if so, what does that include and how should that be implemented?

This is not about seeking compromise at someone else’s table, not about standing still in the middle of someone else’s road.

The purposes of universal public education, then, is refocused in the ways that address the needs of the least among us, as Gandhi envisioned:

[Nonformal education] … will check the progressive decay of our villages and lay the foundation for a juster social order in which there is no unnatural division between the “haves” and the “have nots” and everybody is assured a living wage and the rights to freedom.…It will provide a healthy and a moral basis of relationship between the city and village and will go a long way towards eradicating some of the worst evils of the present social insecurity and poisoned relationship between the classes. (Harijan, 9-10-37, cited in Prasad, 1924…). (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 236)

Bureaucratic accountability-based reform is ill equipped to address inequity, mismatched with goals of social justice since the paradigm is authoritarian, the locus of power exclusively with the “haves.”

Non-cooperation seeks instead, as Ramanathan explains:

[an orientation] toward viewing education in broader, community-oriented terms to draw out “the best in children,” to build a “healthy and moral” base for both “the city and the village,” to be entirely secular in its orientation (with “no room … for sectional religious training,” and to eventually transform the “homes of the pupils”[)]. (p. 237)

As well, this call for non-cooperation reframes the civility debate, as Gandhi recognized: “We must welcome them to our political platforms [emphasis added] as honoured guests. We must meet them on neutral platforms as comrades” (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 237). Civility then follows the re-imagining of the locus of power: “Non-Cooperation…emerges as a deeply historicized awareness committed to doing the opposite of repressive, silencing ills. The quiet way in which both projects bridge perceived gulfs are reminiscent of Gandhi’s insistence on responding to tyranny by searching for nonviolent, quiet alternatives that tap the moral instincts of humans” (Ramanathan, p. 238).

Currently, since calls for CCSS, VAM, and civility all work as “repressive,” “silencing,” and “tyranny,” non-cooperation is the only alternative remaining.

The results must be “interpreting all education as ‘civic education’ and on attending to the most basic of human needs—food, clothing, shelter—before addressing any issues related to formal learning”  (Ramanathan, pp. 241-242) as direct action refusing to compromise on in-school only education reform that drives arguments for how best to implement CCSS and VAM:

This close attention to “educating oneself,” of figuring out and questioning one’s own default assumptions, has echoes of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation, and finds interesting articulation in the idea that we each need to “not cooperate” with our default views but attempt to step outside them by “educating ourselves” by learning from others. (Ramanathan, pp. 244)

In the West, specifically in the United States, we are deeply entrenched in our “default views,” most of which are tinted by commitments to competition, authoritarian structures, and the sanctity of the individual. This call, however, is a call to recognize the importance of community and social justice in our national pursuit of democracy.

Arundhati Roy confronts the tensions at the core of why compromise, moratoriums, and civility fail the narrow education debate as well as the broader democracy:

Fascism is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of state power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular, day-to-day injustices.…It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country that are speaking about real issues….It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, every violence of abject poverty. (Roy, 2002; qtd. Ramanathan, pp. 246)

Now is the time for non-cooperation, not moratoriums, not compromise, and not civility on other people’s terms.

Now is the time for non-cooperation so that teachers are not foreigners in their own profession and students are not foreigners in their own classrooms.

[1] See also Jeff Bryant.

[2] Of the three calls for moderation, I do not place Di Carlo’s position as essentially equal to those by Weingarten and Jennings. Di Carlo’s nuanced and detailed discussion of VAM contributes a credible position that I find compelling to a point (such as Di Carlo conceding: “Now, I personally am not opposed to using these estimates in evaluations and other personnel policies”); however, Weingarten and Jennings present far more problems and suffer from a much greater degree of lacking credibility.

Contemporary Education Reform and “A Cult of Ignorance”

Writing in Newsweek (1980, January 21) in the cusp of America’s shift into the Reagan era of conservatism that included the roots of the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Isaac Asimov declared the U.S. “a cult of ignorance,” explaining:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

While science fiction (SF)—a genre within which Asimov is legendary—is often misread as prediction (SF is often allegorical or a critical and satirical commentary on the contemporary world, more so than predictive), Asimov’s brief essay is eerily prescient about the most recent education reform movement and the discourse surrounding it.

As Reagan ascended the presidency in the U.S., Asimov noticed a clear line being drawn by politicians between them as spokespeople for and with the public versus intellectuals, academics, and experts of all kinds. One shift Asimov observed was a move away from the 1960s “Don’t trust anyone over 30″ to a new conservative “Don’t trust the experts.”

In America, it seems, economic elitism was desirable but intellectual elitism was to be avoided at all costs.

Asimov noted both the central importance of a powerful, independent, and critical media along with the inherent problem of how well equipped the public is to gain from such a media (if one exists). While I find Asimov’s concern for Americans’ literacy too flippant and suffering (ironically) from his own blindspot as an expert writer who likely was far less expert in the broader field of literacy and literacy instruction (his advanced degrees are in chemistry), he did make a credible though garbled call for critical literacy among an American public that is functionally literate:

[T]he American public, by and large, in their distrust of experts and in their contempt for pointy-headed professors, can’t and don’t read.

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headline—but how many nonelitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic? [1]

Asimov eventually raised an important question about the right to know among a free people, the role of the media, and the need for an educated public in a free and democratic society:

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read….

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

As we time-travel forward thirty-three years, Asimov has offered the current education reform template as well as the tremendous hurdle facing teachers, researchers, and scholars seeking to raise their voices of expertise and experience against a political and public commitment to a cult of ignorance: Don’t trust experts, but do trust politicians, celebrities, and billionaires.

Asimov’s essay, with only a few edits, could easily be written today and aimed squarely at the education reform movement. Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee warn the American public not to listen to the experts—teachers, researchers, and scholars.

That discourse remains robust as long as the media reports and perpetuates that political message and as long as formal education remains primarily bureaucratic, insuring that schools fail to foster critical literacy while the consumer culture feeding on entertainment keeps the public so busy and distracted that few bother to consider the danger ignoring experts poses to both freedom and democracy.

The political and economic elites benefit themselves from marginalizing and demonizing educators and the educated (the expert); the political and economic elites also benefit indirectly and directly from keeping universal public education in the most reduced form possible, exactly what accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing insure.

The education reform movement’s commitments to Common Core State Standards, national high-stakes tests, teacher evaluation linked to those tests, and chain-type charter schools are not quests for a better educated American public, but strategies for further entrenching the U.S. in the cult of ignorance Asimov unmasked over three decades ago.

[1] Asimov’s immediate school bashing based on test scores suggests he, too, was a victim of careless attention to the facts.

Education: The Invisible Profession

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).

While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

Regie Routman documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman unmasked the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CCSS, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

“A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach” to Rejecting CCSS

“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.

This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”

I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.

Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.

I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.

Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.

I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.

I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.

SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.

And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.

Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.

Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.

Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.

Nothing is more real or practical than that.