The message today?
US public education and the US criminal justice system remain plagued by racial and economic inequity. They are a shared disgrace for a free people.
The message today?
US public education and the US criminal justice system remain plagued by racial and economic inequity. They are a shared disgrace for a free people.
Please watch this interview at Truthout:
And the related article, also at Truthout
A related radio interview housed here as well:
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? 
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.
 Asimov’s immediate school bashing based on test scores suggests he, too, was a victim of careless attention to the facts.
The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.
Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.
Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).
And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.
For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:
“Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.”
Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and merit pay policies.
Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few new paradigms:
• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]
• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.
• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students , regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.
• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.
Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.
The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:
“Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.”
Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.
A half century seems to be a significant amount of time for change, but Minnijean Brown Trickey’s visit to Little Rock Central High School fifty years after the federal government had to monitor her and eight other African American students entering public school shows that much more time is needed. Felicia Lee captured Trickey’s experience, documented in the HBO film Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later:
“On a recent visit to Central High, Ms. Trickey spoke to a self-segregated classroom: whites on one side, blacks on the other. An African-American student apparently dozed as she spoke. Students and teachers alike spoke blithely or painfully of the low educational aspirations and achievements of too many black students. Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high achieving, affluent white minority.”
Public schools in the U.S., like Little Rock Central, are a snapshot of racial and economic inequity. While the landmark Brown v. the Board of Educationin 1954 ended de jure segregation, the South struggled with school integration well into the 1970s.
Yet, Little Rock Central is not unique to the lingering racial and economic inequities found in schools—including children of color, children from poverty, ELL, and special needs students being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers, receiving highly scripted test-prep instruction, and enduring authoritarian “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Children of color and children from poverty also experience the within-school segregation highlighted by Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later: White and affluent students dominate selective tracks of classes (such as Advanced Placement), and white and African American students self-segregate in class, the lunchroom, and social settings.
Many of these issues of social and educational inequity receive some political and public consideration, but one aspect of inequity remains ignored: The rise of de facto educational segregation, notably in the South.
The Re-segregated South
Race has historically been central to both how the South is defined as well as the social tensions of the region. In a 2012 report for The Civil Rights Project, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg note that the twenty-first century has revealed a South in which “black and Latino students account for about half of the region’s students, while whites constitute a minority.”
According to data drawn from a larger report, E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students, the racial dynamics of the South include two powerful elements, as Siegel-Hawley and Frankenberg, focusing on the South, detail:
• The South is a majority-minority region in terms of its school enrollment, second only to the West as the most diverse in the country. At more than 15 million students, the South has, by far, the largest enrollment of any region. Southern students make up almost a third of the national enrollment (32% of all students).
• Latino students account for nearly the same share (23.4%) of the region’s enrollment as black students (25.9%). At 46.9%, whites now constitute a minority of students in the South.
While the South has historically been an impoverished region of the U.S., the racial shifts experienced by the region amplify the problems already faced by public schools disproportionately burdened by the impact of poverty on student outcomes as well as fully funding education. Racial and economic factors are difficult to separate in the South, but the rise in populations of Latino students adds challenges associated with language acquisition to the systemic struggles fueled by racial tensions in the South.
During the most recent era of school accountability, begun in the early 1980s and intensified in 2001 with the implementation of No Child Behind (which specifically charged public schools with documenting and addressing racial gaps in achievement), however, achievement gaps and drop-out rates, for example, remain seemingly entrenched in public education. One other reality of the last three to four decades is that schools are re-segregating:
• Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90-100% minority students). This represents a significant setback. Though for decades Southern black students were more integrated than their peers in other parts of the country, by 2009-10 the share of Southern black students enrolled in intensely segregated minority schools (33.4%) was fast closing in on the national figure (38.1%). By comparison, in 1980, just 23% of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools.
• For the last four decades, contact between black and white students has declined in virtually all Southern states. In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.
• Most of the largest Southern metro areas also report declining black-white exposure. The Raleigh, NC metro had the highest black-white contact although this too has fallen in recent years. In 2009, the typical black student in the metro went to a school where whites accounted for about 45% of their peers, compared to about 54% in 2002).
• In 2009, black-white exposure in the metropolitan area of Raleigh was relatively similar to the overall white percentage in the metro (54%)–indicating fairly stable levels of desegregation. Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district’s voluntary integration policy.
• Two metros, Memphis, TN and Miami, FL, had the lowest exposure of black students to white students in 2009, under 15%.
The South is no longer a racial dichotomy between black and white; Latino students now share the inequities found among African Americans:
• The share of Latino students attending intensely segregated minority schools has increased steadily over the past four decades from 33.7% in 1968 to 43.1% in 2009; presently more than two out of five Latino students in the South attend intensely segregated settings.
•At the metropolitan level, Latino-white exposure is higher than black-white exposure across many major Southern metro areas. This is particularly true in Southern metros outside of Texas (where, in general, the lowest exposure between Latino and white students occurred).
• For example, Atlanta has a growing Latino student population, now comprising 13% of all students. As their share of enrollment has grown, Latino exposure to whites has fallen substantially—by nearly ten percentage points since 2002. Yet, Latino students in the Atlanta area still have higher exposure to white students (29.8%) than their black peers (20.3%).
• In ten Southern metros, the typical Latino attends a school where at least 40% of students are white. By comparison, only in the Raleigh metro did black students experience similarly high levels of exposure to white students.
Among black, white, and Latino students, social and educational inequity defines access to education (schools remain reflections of racially and economically stratified communities):
• Black students experience the highest levels of exposure to poverty in nearly every Southern state. (This is different from the rest of the U.S., where Latino students experience higher average exposure to poverty.)
• Virginia, with the lowest share of student poverty in the South, also reports the lowest black exposure to poor students. Even then, almost 50% of students in the school of the typical black student in Virginia are low-income, considerably higher than the state’s share of low-income students (36.8%).
• Stark differences in exposure to poverty for white students, as compared to black and Latino students, exist in virtually every Southern and Border metropolitan area.
• In three Border metros, the typical white student attended a school with less than 30% poor students, and the typical black student attended a school with more than 60% of students from households at or near the poverty line.
The re-segregation of the South should raise essential questions about education reform: How are current reform policies addressing racial and economic inequity? And how are those reforms impacting re-segregation?
Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity
The current education reform era remains committed to seeking new standards (currently a push for national standards, the Common Core), aligning tests to those standards and then linking those test scores to teacher evaluations, expanding commitments to charter schools, and infusing the teaching core with inexperienced and uncertified Teach for America recruits.
While the education reform movement has ignored that test-based accountability has failed to raise student outcomes, close achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, or boost international comparisons of U.S. schools, the test-based and “no excuses” reform paradigm proves to be even a greater failure when measured against goals committed to equity, as the reports from The Civil Rights Project highlight.
Changing standards ignores that children in poverty and children of color tend to experience test-prep courses regardless of the standards, and thus receive a reduced educational experience when compared to middle-class and affluent (and disproportionately white) students. If education reform were committed to equity, public schools would insure that all students, regardless of race or socio-economic status, would receive rich and engaging educations.
Increasing the amount of testing and the stakes associated with that testing (for both students and teachers) ignores that standardized testing remains more closely linked with the child’s home status than with the child’s learning or their teachers’ effectiveness. If education reform were committed to equity, high-stakes standardized testing and using test scores to label and rank students and teachers would be completely eliminated. Test-driven education stratifies students by race and socio-economic status, discourages teachers from seeking opportunities to work with high-needs students, and misrepresents school quality (see the historical failure of relying on the SAT, for example.)
Charter schools are not producing outcomes superior to public (or private) schools, but charter schools (such as KIPP) are stratifying (re-segregating) schools and focusing education for children of color and children from poverty more on authoritarian discipline policies and test-prep than rich experiences being experienced by their more affluent (and white) peers. If education reform were committed to equity, children of color and children from poverty would be provided public education that mirrors the education being experienced by affluent whites; instead, charter schools are segregated and “no excuses” environments designed for “other people’s children.”
Funding and expanding TFA candidates in high-poverty and high-minority schools ignores that the single greatest inequity experienced by children of color and children from poverty is being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would abandon test-based teacher evaluations as well as supporting TFA, and instead would insure equity of teacher assignment for all students while also acknowledging the importance of experience and expertise for teachers.
Focusing on school-only reform (the tenet of “no excuses” school reform) ignores the corrosive power of poverty. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would be supported by social reform that acknowledges recent findings on the stress of poverty and child cognition: “These results suggest that prenatal stress may play a role in the intergenerational persistence of poverty.” Poverty is the result of inequity, and schools too often reflect that inequity and thus cannot then raise students out of that poverty.
The bi-partisan test-based accountability movement, driven by a “no excuses” ideology, is deaf and blind to the social and educational inequity of their policies.
Little Rock Central, half a century after segregation was declared over, remains a haunting legacy of how much further society and U.S. schools need to go:
“Central is still pretty segregated,” Brandon Love, the affluent student body president who is the only black person in his Advanced Placement classes, says in the film. “It is just that we do not have to have the National Guard here to get in the school and to go to school.”
The South is currently a bitter pill to swallow in the war on inequity. The South, again, is also a stark message for the entire country: Inequity stains the lives and learning of American children.
The commitments of education reform are perpetuating those inequities, not overcoming them. The segregated South has risen again, and education reform deserves a significant part of the blame.
At the intersection of horror and science fiction (SF) lies a haunting lesson in the allegory rising from narratives such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): By the time the apocalypse happens, it won’t look like we expect, and political and public recognition of the event will come way too late.
As a life-long SF fan and educator for three decades, then, I have found that Max Brooks, in his World War Z, has inadvertently written a series of lessons for the education reform apocalypse that is already happening, and almost no one is willing to admit it.
I think we must not ignore that the zombie genre is a mythology about the brain: The infection attacks the brain and the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain. For an educator, these are not trivial matters.
Brooks crafts an oral history that looks back on the human race barely surviving a zombie apocalypse. As the snippets of interviews reveal, the political and military elites around the world failed to act with clarity and often hid the rising zombie plague from the public in calculated and horrifying ways: Decisions were made, for example, about who should survive and who was expendable.
In one section we learn that to identify infected zombies, air planes killed hundreds of people so that the infected could rise from the carnage and be easily identified.
Another response to the zombie outbreak involves the government and Big Pharma. Initially, the zombie infection is identified as rabies so a rabies vaccine is mass-produced, primarily to allay fear although the government and pharmaceutical companies knew the vaccine to be ineffective. Money was to be made and the ends justified the means.
But one of the most powerful lessons to me is in the Great Panic section, an interview with Maria Zhuganova. This oral history focuses on the actions of the military in conjunction with civilian oversite, a man call “Rat Face.”
In Zhuganova’s explanation, we discover that the soldiers are forced to enact decimation, as she explains:
“To ‘decimate’…I used to think it meant just to wipe out, cause horrible damage, destroy…it actually means to kill by a percentage of ten, one out of every ten must die…and that’s exactly what they did to us….
“We would be the ones to decide who would be punished. Broken up into groups of ten, we would have to vote on which one of us was going to be executed. And then we…the soldiers, we would be the ones to personally murder our friends….
“Brilliance….Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn’t. We went right along with it….We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was only following orders.’” (p. 81-83)
And here we sit in 2013, awaiting the film version of World War Z and pretending that a horror/SF tale has no value beyond our entertainment.
While our government conspires with Big Testing to implement scorched-earth policies with our children because the public is afraid of our international competitiveness and does not question the effectiveness of testing, despite the evidence to the contrary.
And like the soldiers, teachers are compelled to be accomplices in Common Core State Standards implementation and preparing our students for the tests to follow.
The decimation of public education has infected us all.
The only real antidote, unlike the zombie apocalypse, is that educators, students, and parents must all choose not to follow orders, not to become the accomplices that allow the decimation.
The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.’”
The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:
“When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.” (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)
As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.
Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates
Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.
Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.
And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.
A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.
Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.
CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.
Like the “‘remarkable apparatus’” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.
Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:
“The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.”
The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”
While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.
Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.
In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.
For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:
“‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,’ chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. ‘And to the Republic for which it stands . . .’
“In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: ‘One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.’
“A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: ‘I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .’
“Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a ‘moral focus’ or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….
“Students troop out of the gym to start their day.” (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)
“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.
And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:
“The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, ‘the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.’”
No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]
Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint“ by Peter Dreier:
“In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.”
Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?
And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.
“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)
Education reform has existed at some policy and public levels since at least the 1890s in the U.S. The current reform movement grounded in state-based accountability began in the early 1980s with a Nation at Risk, and then was nationalized in 2001 with No Child Left Behind.
In the first decades of the recent accountability era, standards and high-stakes testing were implemented and periodically revised at the state level with the primary focus being on student and school accountability. The current cycle, however, has seen an increase in policies and practices aimed at teacher accountability and increasing teacher quality—despite a solid research base showing that teacher quality constitutes only 10-15% of measurable student outcomes (test data).
The focus on increasing teacher quality and accountability has included both experiments and policies with value added methods (VAM) of determining teacher quality in order to label, rank, sort, and retain or dismiss teachers. VAM claims to isolate teacher quality through pre- and post-testing methods that seek to identify teacher quality and isolate that from the other factors reflected in test scores.
Before policy-makers and stakeholders in education commit to reforming teacher evaluation and retention, foundational questions must be addressed, and then the current facts about VAM must be acknowledged.
First, the foundational questions:
(1) What evidence exists identifying teacher quality as a primary or significant problem facing a school or district? Where, then, does teacher quality rank as a priority for a school, district, or state in terms of cost effectiveness in committing funding to the reform?
(2) Are all elements of implementing VAM at any percentage to the revised teacher evaluation process valid for determining teacher quality? In other words, what measures are taken to account for using student test scores (designed to reflect student learning, and not designed to reflect teacher quality) as data points for teacher quality?
(3) Have the teaching and learning environments for students’ home and schools been addressed to insure equitable teaching and learning environments in which determining teacher quality becomes valid?
Next, what is the current knowledge base about VAM*?:
(1) Including VAM at any percentage in reformed teacher evaluation models is currently in the experimental phase. Data and the validity of including VAM are being tested, but almost no researchers currently claim VAM (at any percentage but certainly at high percentages such as 40-50%) to be ready for widespread implementation.
(2) VAM models for labeling teacher quality are highly unstable. Teacher rankings tend to shift with new populations of students.
(3) Researchers agree that VAM is unlikely ever to be completely stable; thus, it is possible that VAM will never be a practical or fair element in teacher evaluation, particularly at the individual teacher level or in any single year.
(4) The statistical and practical requirements to isolate teacher quality in student test scores pose tremendous costs in time and funding that also may prove to be not cost effective in the context of most school systems’ priorities. In order to implement a fair and equitable teacher evaluation system that includes VAM at any percentage, states must create and implement pre- and post-tests to all students in all teachers’ courses, creating a new and costly commitment to education funding.
(5) Decades of research on high-stakes testing have shown many negative unintended consequences to accountability measures focusing on students and schools; including VAM in high-stakes accountability policies focusing on teachers is likely to have similar unintended negative consequences such as discouraging high-quality teachers from working with high-needs populations of students.
Thus, policy-makes and stakeholders are strongly cautioned to consider education reform priorities, the experimental nature of VAM, and the current knowledge base on VAM before committing tax dollars to either field testing or implementing new teacher evaluation policies built in any way on VAM.
Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.
So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:
National high-stakes tests built on CCSS
Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking
Teach for America
These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.
For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.
The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:
“Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.”
Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:
“This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.
“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.
“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”
And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:
“Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.
“The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.”
Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.
As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:
“[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.”
Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:
“As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….
“The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.
“Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.
“The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.”
Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):
“The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible….
“[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes….
“The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish….
““In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification.” (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)
Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:
“The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.
“In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.”
Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.
Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.
But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.
The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.
Let’s return to the allegory of the river.
Throughout the Land, people discovered babies floating in the river. A few were chosen to save those babies. While many survived, too many babies perished.
Technocrats, Economists, and Statisticians gathered all the Data that they could and discovered that at least 60% of the reason the babies survived or perished in the river was due to babies being tossed in the river; about 10-15% of the reason babies survived or perished was due to the quality of those trying to save babies in the river.
So the Leaders of the Land decided to focus exclusively on increasing the quality of those trying to save the babies floating in the river, saying, “There is nothing we can do about babies being tossed in the river, and there are no excuses for not saving these babies!”
And so it goes…
While this altered tale above reads like a dystopian allegory, it is a fair and accurate portrayal of the current mania to address teacher quality—a mania that simply has the entire reform process backward.
First, the body of research shows a clear statistical pattern about the array of factors influenting measurable student outcomes, as summarized by Di Carlo:
“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).”
When educators and education researchers note that teacher quality is dwarfed by other factors, primarily out-of-school factors associated with affluence and poverty, Corporate and “No Excuses” Reformers respond with straw man arguments that quoting statistical facts is somehow saying teachers cannot have an impact on students or that quoting those facts is simply an excuse for not trying to educate all students (see Larry Ferlazzo and Anthony Cody for examples of this phenomenon in the debate over teacher quality).
To be clear, however, the problem is not that teacher quality doesn’t matter or that teachers do not want to be evaluated or held accountable. The problem is that addressing in a single-minded way teacher quality is self-defeating since (as the altered allegory above shows) it has the priorities of reform backward.
Teacher quality reform should occur, but it must come after the primary factors impacting learning and teaching conditions are addressed, thus making it possible to make valid and reliable evaluations of teacher quality. That process should be:
(1) Address first and directly the inequity of opportunity in the lives of children to create the conditions within which schools/teachers can succeed and thus school and teacher quality can be better evaluated and supported. As stated in a recent review of misleading “no excuses” and “miracle” school claims: “Addressing out-of-school factors is primary and fundamental to resolving education inequality” (Paige, 2013, January).
(2) Address next equity and opportunity within schools. Teaching conditions must be equitable in all school and for all students. Currently, affluent and successful students have the most experienced certified teachers and also sit in AP and IB classes with low student/teacher ratios while poor and struggling students have new and un-/under-certified teachers, sitting in high student/teacher ratios classes that are primarily test-prep. Inequitable teaching/learning conditions actually mask our ability to identify quality teachers.
(3) And then, once out-of-school equity is addressed and then in-school equity is addressed focusing on teaching and learning conditions, teachers must be afforded autonomy; and finally, we can gather credible evidence to begin identifying valid teacher quality metrics to inform evaluating, supporting, and retaining teachers.
The first and second priorities can be implemented simultaneously and immediately, with the third priority delayed until conditions are equitable enough to make authentic assessments of teacher impact on student learning. [And regardless, everyone involved in teaching and learning can and must continue to teach as well as possible; that is a given.]
Current arguments that only teacher quality matters are neither statistically accurate nor an effective reform priority.
Current arguments that only teacher quality matters are a frantic effort to save the babies floating in the river while ignoring the real crisis of babies being thrown in the river in the first place.