The Doable We Refuse to Do: End Poverty, Confront Privilege

Since I have recently challenged the word magic behind claims that education is the one true path out of poverty and that the free market can ever address poverty and inequity, I want to highlight that the unwillingness of political leaders and the public to acknowledge the importance and potential of the Commons results in a refusal to end directly poverty and confront privilege.

Austin Nichols offers a powerful argument that We can end child poverty. Or, at least, do more:

We could effectively end child poverty now, at least in the short run. The question is whether we’re willing to do that.

If the United States offered cash benefits to children in poor families, we could cut child poverty by more than half. According to calculations using the 2012 Current Population Survey, poor children need $4,800 each, on average, to escape poverty. That’s $400 a month for each child.

If we issued a $400 monthly payment to each child, and cut tax subsidies for children in  higher-income families, we would cut child poverty from 22 percent to below 10 percent. If we further guaranteed one worker per family a job paying $15,000 a year, and each family participated, child poverty would drop to under 1 percent.

A child benefit is now common across developed countries, with amounts of about $140 a month in the UK, $190 in Ireland, $130 in Japan, $160 in Sweden, and $250 in Germany.  A smaller child benefit of $150 per month would chop child poverty from 22 percent to below 17 percent. Adding the job guarantee would lower child poverty to 8 percent.

As important as the need and ability to end poverty directly is the need to face the power of privilege, as detailed by Richard Fry’s The growing economic clout of the college educated. Note specifically the following data displays:

Fry explains the growing disparity:

For the first time on record, households headed by someone with at least a bachelor’s degree received nearly a majority (49.7%) of aggregate U.S. household income; nearly one out of every two dollars went to the college educated.  In 2012 one-in-three households was college educated, so, put another way, half of the aggregate U.S. income goes to one third of the households.

Buried in the strong correlation between level of education attained and household income is the very real causational relationship between privilege and access to that education (both the quality and attainment). While it remains statistically true that higher earning is associated with higher educational attainment, it is also likely that higher educational attainment is simply a marker for the privilege that led to that attainment.

In other words, identifying any person’s educational attainment may be more about that person’s relative privilege or poverty and not that person’s effort, ability, or genuine achievement. (Please note Bruenig’s recognition that birth-wealth without college still has higher income potential than birth-poverty and college attainment.)

The evidence is overwhelming that poverty and affluence are destiny, that inequity is growing in the U.S., and that the best and most effective methods for ending poverty and closing the equity gap is through direct action by our publicly funded institutions (and not waiting on the magic of the Invisible Hand).

“Word Magic,” Education, and Market Forces

Writing about writing instruction, Lou LaBrant, in “The Individual and His Writing” (Elementary Education, 27.4, April 1950) sounded an alarm about “word magic”:

There is other sematic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)

While LaBrant’s message about powerful and clear writing—as well as powerful and clear thinking—remains important lessons for students, it appears that there remains political advantage in word magic, particularly in how leaders frame discussions of education in the U.S. and the importance of the free market.

For example, a persistent refrain from self-proclaimed education reformers, political appointees, and government leaders is “poverty is not destiny.” However, in the U.S. poverty is demonstrably destiny, as is affluence.

“Poverty is not destiny” is word magic, but it doesn’t make that come true. A more credible claim, an ethical claim, is “poverty should not be destiny,” and then we need to do something about it.

In fact, the entire accountability era of education reform built on standards and high-stakes testing along with a variety of market-based reforms is driven almost entire by word magic, and not evidence. Huge claims such as the U.S. economy depends on a world-class public school system continue to dominate public discourse despite decades of research that show little or no positive correlation among test scores, international education rankings, and economic competitiveness. None.

There are, then, two powerful but misleading forms of word magic that must be confronted before genuine and significant education reform can occur in the U.S.: (1) the ability of public schools to overcome poverty, and (2) the ability of the free market to eradicate poverty and inequity. [In short, both are lies.]

Is Education the One True Way Out of Poverty?

Matt Brunig has challenged one of the central uses of word magic in education reform:

The New York Times ran a long and very good article on poverty. In it, they quote Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

Bruenig concludes: “This thinking is the biggest enemy of poverty reduction. Poor people are poor because they don’t have enough money, not because they don’t have enough education.” In fact, Bruenig has shown that privilege is far more powerful still than education:

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

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

And thus, turning next to Michelle Rhee’s use of word magic, Bruenig explains:

But I come in when Loomis writes this about Rhee: “Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it.” Anyone who says this is an enemy of poor people, full stop. And there are plenty. Recall earlier Arne Duncan said it: “What I fundamentally believe and what the president believes [...] is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

To be super clear, let’s distinguish between three claims here:

  1. Education is a way to end poverty.
  2. Education is the best way to end poverty.
  3. Education is the only way to end poverty.

These are all false….

In the U.S., poverty is destiny, but poverty should not be destiny. As well, education is not the one true way out of poverty, but education should be more transformative than it currently is.

Word magic surrounding the power of education is also accompanied by number magic—the persistent claim we use to bribe students into taking their education serious (as detailed by the College Board):

Figure 1.2: Expected Lifetime Earnings Relative to High School Graduates, by Education Level

The claim suggests that level of education equates positively to higher levels of earning potential. But this too is likely a lie.

Instead the formula is actually as follows:

privilege/poverty = educational access/quality = lifetime earning potential

Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.

And thus the real problem with U.S. public education isn’t international education rankings of test scores, it isn’t having standards that are too low, and it certainly isn’t the need for next-generation high-stakes tests.

As detailed in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Jean Anyon exposed that public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate social class in the U.S.:

In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure….

In the middle-class school, work is getting the right answer….

In the affluent professional school, work is creative activity carried out independently.

Schools, then, are not failing in the ways political leaders claim, trapped as they are in word magic, but are failing to be the transformative public institutions that they could and should be.

The great irony is that the true failure of universal public education is a lesson about the need for the publicly funded Commons and the failure of the free market to achieve ethical goals of democracy and social justice.

Can the Free Market Eradicate Poverty and Inequity?

If any commitment is poisoned by the power of word magic, it is the blind faith afforded the free market in the U.S. The free market holds a misplaced first priority in the U.S.—with the Commons marginalized and demonized. (Despite some simple examples of how the Commons are first in important: How might the free market dependent on private property function in the U.S. without the highway infrastructure, the judicial system, or the police force?)

Embedded in that faith in the free market is, as Bruenig explains, a misconception about poverty itself:

When you say you want to “solve” poverty, you generally assume poverty just exists as an independent-from-policy phenomenon and that we are then going to tackle it with policyinterventions. So we talk about it as if it’s akin to someone being trapped in a burning house that we then come from the outside of to rescue.

But that is not true. Poverty doesn’t just happen. Poverty is created. It is a consequence of policy. We have in our society a set of policies that govern the distribution of income. That set of policies distributes income very unevenly such that a lot of people have very little and are thus impoverished. Poverty is not a thing that just exists that we then try to solve with policy. It is a thing that is brought into existence by our (distributive) policy in the first place. In the burning house metaphor, policy sets the house on fire.

What I am saying is that we should stop setting houses on fire.

Free market capitalism is amoral; in other words, the market has an insular ethic of supply and demand, what the market will tolerate.

For example, during the scar of slavery in the U.S., there was a market incentive to treat slaves as property, but not as humans. Calling for treating slaves as humans was a role accomplished by the Commons, a collective of people driven by human dignity.

But we need not go that far back in history. Consider the HIV-positive scandal in the pornography industry, as reported by Kathleen Miles:

Owning nothing but a backpack full of clothes, Cameron Bay started working as an escort, hoping to rebuild her life. A few months ago, she performed in her first-ever porn scene — an orgy with 10 people, she said. After just nine more scenes, she discovered she has HIV. Nobody’s sure where or when she contracted it.

During her scenes, none of the male performers she had sex with ever used a condom, she said. One female performer told her, “Don’t even bring it up because they have somebody waiting to replace you.”

“I learned that there’s always someone younger and sexier, willing to do something you’re not. It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Bay said in an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post. “I think we need more choices because of that. Condoms should be a choice.”

Cameron Bay is the face of the free market, the human cost of competition without the ethical context of the Commons. Condom use, a regulation, could have provided the safety net if the Commons were afforded first priority. But it isn’t.

And since many here will simply discount the choice this porn actress has made—many will marginalize her with glee, I imagine, disregarding the sexism in her circumstances and the power of reduced circumstances to distort the concept of “choice”—Bay’s comment is exactly why Walmart and other companies across the U.S. can and have turned much of the workforce into wage-slaves: There is always someone willing to take the reduced circumstances of a part-time job without benefits because the horror of poverty exists to keep this dynamic in place for the benefit of those running the free market.

Referring to her opening quote from Alice in Wonderland, LaBrant ended her piece on word magic focusing on democracy:

Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)

Yes, “misuse of language…is a terrible thing,” and few misuses are as damaging as to continue lies about the power of education and the free market to overcome poverty.

Instead of word magic, we must speak and then act about creating an equitable society in which poverty is never created—and within that equitable society, we must also recreate an education system also driven by equity, democracy, and a genuine respect for the dignity of children.

Instead of political lies, we need direct messages about direct action, as Martin Luther King, Jr., represents:

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….

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

The Libertarian Faerie: A Fable

Americans watched as their leaders battled: Senate versus House over the fate of food stamps:

Republicans have emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.

“Politically it’s a great issue,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., one of the conservatives who has pushed for the larger cuts. “I think most Americans don’t think you should be getting something for free, especially for the able-bodied adults.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday that Democrats are united against the bill.

“Maybe I’m just hoping for divine intervention, but I really do believe that there are enough Republicans that will not identify themselves with such a brutal cut in feeding the American people,” Pelosi said at a news conference.

Hearing this, the Libertarian Faerie appeared before Congress and proclaimed: “I can grant you all one wish—that all people of this great land will have only that which they have earned!”

House and Senate alike nodded their heads and the Libertarian Faerie waved his arms.

And thus, that day, the entire House and Senate stood naked and penniless before the American public, and few times in recent history had so many white men wandered also naked and penniless across the US of A.

Moral: Oops.

[Thanks to @alexisgoldstein]

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Version 2

The Ghost of Ayn Rand: A Horror Story

Americans watched as their leaders battled: Senate versus House over the fate of food stamps:

Republicans have emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.

“Politically it’s a great issue,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., one of the conservatives who has pushed for the larger cuts. “I think most Americans don’t think you should be getting something for free, especially for the able-bodied adults.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday that Democrats are united against the bill.

“Maybe I’m just hoping for divine intervention, but I really do believe that there are enough Republicans that will not identify themselves with such a brutal cut in feeding the American people,” Pelosi said at a news conference.

Hearing this, the ghost of Ayn Rand appeared before Congress and proclaimed: “I declare that all people of this great land will have only that which they have earned!”

House and Senate alike nodded their heads as the ghost of Ayn Rand waved her arms.

And thus, that day, the entire House and Senate stood naked and penniless before the American public, and few times in recent history had so many white men wandered also naked and penniless across the US of A.

Moral: Oops.

The Lingering Legacy of Segregation

As we approach 60 years since U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and stand in the wake of a 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, Richard Rothstein details:

Today, many black children still attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty: 39 percent of black children are from families with incomes below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of white children (U.S. Census Bureau(a)); 28 percent of black children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 4 percent of white children (Casey 2013).

Reports from 2012 also highlighted the growing resegregation of schools in the South and across the U.S. Concurrent with the re-segregation of public schools—along with the ignored reality that children’s ZIP codes tend to determine their access to high- or low-quality schools, which reflect the affluence/poverty of the community—a growing commitment to charter schools ignores that charter schools fail to achieve academic success distinguishable from traditional public schools (both formats of schooling produce a range of outcomes) but tend to segregate children by race and class.

Rothstein recognizes a historical link between burying the Coleman report from the mid-1960s and the rise of “no excuses” reform today:

The fear of education reformers today, that discussion of social and economic impediments to learning will only lead to “making excuses” for poor teaching (Rothstein 2008), mirrors fears in 1966 that similar discussion would undermine support for federal aid to education.

A few important lessons lie beneath these historical and current patterns.

First, continuing to refuse to confront, discuss, and address directly race, class, segregation, and inequity guarantees that none of these contexts will ever be overcome.

Next, continuing to focus on bureaucratic and political answers to complex social and educational issue is the central failure we associate with “government.” When government is primarily political and bureaucratic, it is impotent or even corrosive.

For democracy and government to work, then, we must re-envision government as a mechanism for democratic goals. That will require lessening our faith in the free market and the Invisible Hand while increasing our faith in the Commons.

Segregation itself is ugly but so is its recent history in the U.S.

Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has nearly eradicated blatant and legal segregation. But that structural shift forced segregation to go underground.

A second wave of segregation developed and has existed in public schools for decades—schools within schools. The persistent use of  tracking and the gate-keeping mechanisms that create Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate “schools” within the “other” schools where mostly black and brown children living in poverty sit in overcrowded classes with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers have institutionalized a masked segregation that we still mostly ignore.

Upon that second wave of insidious and tacit segregation we are now confronted with a third frontier of segregation that almost no one seems to find offensive—represented by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and their copy-cat “no excuses” charters (see the story of New Orleans for a vivid picture).

Public education is a mirror of U.S. society. Our schools do not change society; they mimic and perpetuate our society.

The school-choice-option of the day, charter schools, is yet more of the great bureaucratic failure of government—investing precious public funds to build a system of schools that are indistinguishable from the schools we claim are failing, replete with the worst public education has to offer.

If segregation is a scar on a free people (and it is), then segregation cannot be tolerated in any form in our public institutions.

Commitments to new standards, next-generation high-stakes tests, charter schools, and Teach for America are not only failed education reform mechanisms, but also tragic re-investments in segregation that remains separate and unequal.

The rich get richer, and fewer, while everyone else frantically competes for the little that is left over.

Rothstein ends his report by confronting public policy:

It is inconceivable to think that education as a civil rights issue can be addressed without addressing residential segregation—a housing goal of the March on Washington. Housing policy is school policy; equality of education relies upon eliminating the exclusionary zoning ordinances of white suburbs and subsidizing dispersed housing in those suburbs for low-income African Americans now trapped in central cities.

By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right. It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve, but to renew it.

Saying education is the civil rights issue of our time, as President Obama and Secretary Duncan do, is a hollow political act. To continue that refrain while embracing policies that increase inequity and segregation tarnishes daily the brave and bold words and actions that held such promise at mid-twentieth century.

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Public education in the U.S. suffers under a powerful intersection of politics, the media, and the public. As I have too often documented, misinformation tends to be reinforced among all three of these forces.

The role of media, as Alfie Kohn has examined, is central to perpetuating not only misleading beliefs about school quality and education reform but also bad policy.

For example, in South Carolina, The Greenville News has posted an editorial position on reading legislation that misreads what is the best path forward for addressing literacy in this high-poverty and deeply segregated state, notably:

The core part of the legislation makes common sense and is widely supported. It would make it mandatory to retain any third-grader who is not proficient in reading by the end of the school year. It is an idea that has been implemented in Florida to promising results, and it simply makes sense. Promoting a child to fourth-grade if he or she lacks the needed reading skills dooms that child to failure. Although holding back a student can have negative effects on him or her, that student certainly will do better if educators ensure he or she first knows how to read before advancing past third grade.

While we may need some proof that retention of third graders based on high-stakes test scores is in fact “common sense,” it seems true that retention is “widely supported.” The problem with those justifications is that four decades of research strongly rejects retention and close analysis of Florida’s Just Read, Florida, policies discredits claims of its “promising results” (see a full analysis with extensive evidence of the research base on both here).

A point of flawed logic also drives this editorial position: Retention and promotion are not the only options available, and are thus a false dichotomy that likely sits beneath the reality that retention is “widely supported” by the public and then political leaders (see how narrow choices create a false narrative that an issue is supported in the fourth paragraph from the end here).

Further, embedded in this misunderstanding of the research base on retention are careless claims about Florida’s education reform success as well as the current understanding of reading/ literacy instruction and development.

Florida, in fact, is a lesson in what not to do in terms of education policy (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Reading/ literacy instruction has been eroded by the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing. Literacy is misrepresented by multiple-choice testing, and teaching to those tests greatly warps good literacy instruction.

Test-reading is almost nothing like reading in the real world.

Instead of misguided reading policies reinforced by uninformed media endorsements, a few important and grounding commitments should be guiding reading policy:

  • First, do no harm. Allowing reading policy to be linked to harmful retention policies is inexcusable.
  • Relieve literacy policy from the accountability machine. Authentic, rich, and holistic literacy is eroded by focusing on isolated and skills-based instruction and testing.
  • Recognize that literacy is deeply linked to social class. Unless some powerful efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, students from poverty will remain mislabeled as “bad students” in school and then mis-served in those schools by being funneled into skill-and-drill classes serving the mandates to raise test scores.
  • Set aside the crisis discourse and policies related to literacy. Treating third grade like an Emergency Room ensures that students in most need of patient and rich learning environments will continue to be offered emergency care, and thus once again will be cheated.
  • Embrace low-cost and evidence-based practices that will guarantee literacy growth by increasing student access to books in their lives and their schools: “Perhaps the most serious problem with current literacy campaigns is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: Lack of access to books for children of poverty,” explains Stephen Krashen.

Literacy growth is a natural part of being human. Children in middle-class and affluent homes (and thus likely to be enrolled in schools and classes that reinforce rich and authentic literacy) enjoy the sort of experiences with literacy all children deserve.

Retaining third graders based on high-stakes testing will further perpetuate inequity and erode opportunities for children living in poverty to experience rich and authentic learning environments with texts that would result in the type of literacy growth associated with privileged children.

A final problem with the media’s endorsement of “common sense” and “widely supported” education policy is the recurring call for compromise (see Cindy Scoppe at The State), also expressed in The Greenville News editorial:

The important work this fall and heading into the next legislative session is for education leaders and lawmakers to get on the same page about how such an effort would be implemented. There is plenty of room for common ground on this issue….

When policy is evidence-based (as it should be), a compromise between positions that are not evidence based and positions that are evidence based results in flawed policy. In other words, compromise between wrong and right can only result in wrong.

Yes, I recognize that politics is the realm of compromise, but I also believe therein lies the great failure of politics for setting education policy.

In the end, then, much could be solved if we kept our focus on first, do no harm instead of seeking always compromise as the basis for decisions on education policy.

Racial Inequity Undeniable in U.S.

About the historical approaches to addressing poverty, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1967:

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.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power, they have lagged behind increases in production. Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

In 2013, when poverty is discussed by President Barack Obama, speaking as the leader of the free world and a bi-racial man, the emphasis remains on indirect, and ineffective, strategies:

The stubborn persistence of racial inequality has left policymakers at odds over what to do, and President Obama has resisted targeted efforts to erase racial economic disparities. Instead, he has pushed policies, such as increasing college access and broadening health-care coverage, aimed at lifting the fortunes of all middle- and working-class Americans. He has said that approach will have a disproportionate and positive effect on black Americans….

Obama has said that closing gaps in educational achievement will go a long way toward closing racial inequalities.

Others are not so sure.

“I’d love to run the president’s experiment,” said Darity, the Duke professor. “We really have to face up to the fact that there is a persistence of discrimination that explains a lot about income and employment gaps.”

However, racial inequity persists:

[R]acial economic disparities are mostly unchanged and in some cases are growing. In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time.

The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau….

Darity called the evidence of discrimination irrefutable. He noted that the 12.1 percent jobless rate for blacks with some college education was higher in 2012 than the 11.4 percent rate for white workers who have not finished high school. He also pointed to work by Princeton University researcher Devah Pager, who found that a black job applicant with no criminal history got a callback or job offer about as often as a white applicant with a felony conviction.

With race and class deeply intertwined, the racial inequity in the U.S. both feeds and is intensified by economic inequity, as Matt Bruenig explains about his titular question “What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich?”:

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

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

The path that leads to the end of racial and economic inequity must be one built on direct strategies to eradicate poverty, as King implored:

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. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities

First, some context for the problem with education reform and how we discuss the topic.

Cindy Scoppe, associate editor at The State, addresses grading schools, drawing several conclusions:

What we need is a single grading system, which wasn’t possible before the Obama administration decided to let states apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind….

We’re never going to make the progress we need unless we demand an increasingly higher level of performance, but we need to make sure everyone understands that, rather than mistakenly believing that lower school scores mean schools are doing worse….

Actually requiring that each subgroup meet expectations is important, because without that, schools can ignore the difficult-to-teach students, knowing that their low scores will be masked by the high scores of easier-to-teach students….

South Carolina Superintendent Mick Zais continues to push his version of accountability:

South Carolina has two systems for education accountability. One was developed in 2011 by the S.C. Department of Education and was approved by the U.S. Department of Education as meeting federal requirements. The other was developed in 2001 by the state’s Education Oversight Committee. These dual systems are redundant, confusing and expensive….

Finally, in any situation, timely information is necessary to make informed decisions. The letter grade system tells parents, educators and the public how each school and district performed the previous year. This information is publicized in early August so educators can use the data to make adjustments prior to the beginning of a new school year and so parents can make decisions about where their children are educated.

And while the media and political leadership wrangle with education reform and accountability, yet another wealthy celebrity enters the reform arena, M. Night Shyamalanhas:

Until recently, he says, moviemaking was his real passion. “I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. Still, after the commercial success of his early movies, he wanted to get involved in philanthropy. At first, he gave scholarships to inner-city children in Philadelphia, but he found the results disheartening. When he met the students he had supported over dinner, he could see that the system left them socially and academically unprepared for college. “They’d been taught they were powerless,” he says.

He wanted to do more. He decided to approach education like he did his films: thematically….

Much of his initial research was contradictory. When he asked experts which improvements would close the gap, some said smaller classes, others said school vouchers and still others said school spirit. He discovered that none of these reforms had worked across the board, but this finding, paradoxically, encouraged him. He knew he had to think more broadly.

An idea came to him over dinner with his wife and another couple who were both physicians. One of them, then the chief resident at a Pennsylvania hospital, said that the first thing he told his residents was to give their patients several pieces of advice that would drastically increase their health spans, from sleeping eight hours a day to living in a low-stress environment. The doctor emphasized that the key thing was doing all these things at the same time—not a la carte.

“That was the click,” says Mr. Shyamalan. It struck him that the reason the educational research was so inconsistent was that few school districts were trying to use the best, most proven reform ideas at once. He ultimately concluded that five reforms, done together, stand a good chance of dramatically improving American education. The agenda described in his book is: Eliminate the worst teachers, pivot the principal’s job from operations to improving teaching and school culture, give teachers and principals feedback, build smaller schools, and keep children in class for more hours.

The problem highlighted and represented in these three examples involves several key flaws inherent in education reform being analyzed and driven by people without expertise and experience as educators themselves. The media, politicians, reformers, b/millionaires, and celebrities dominate the debate, formation, and implementation of education policy—all of which focuses on how best to design (and redesign) accountability plans and thus ignores the possibility that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing is the problem.

Scoppe, Zais, and Shyamalanhas offer common sense claims that ring true with the public, building compelling narratives of what is wrong with education and what, then, would serve as credible solutions.

Common sense claims, however, are often misleading and misguided, especially in the education reform debate. Let’s consider just a couple concerns I have about the dominant arguments found in these three pieces but typical of the wider reform debate during the past thirty years.

I taught high school English in a public school in SC for eighteen years before entering teacher education at the university level for the past twelve years, thus, when I read commentaries and media reports related to education, I feel compelled to ask the following:

“We’re never going to make the progress we need unless we demand an increasingly higher level of performance.”* Really? Does this mean that a student scoring an average score on a test in 8th grade should score above average on the 9th grade test? Or does that mean that eighth graders in 2012 should score higher than different 8th graders in 2011? In other words, the claim of constantly increasing achievement is much more rhetoric than a credible expectation. It ignores that different populations of students are incredibly difficult to compare fairly (and possibly that making such comparisons is of little value); that much that we call academic achievement may be a reflection of brain development, effort, or circumstances beyond anyone’s control and not learning; and that in an environment of ever-changing standards and tests, making valid comparisons of data grows nearly impossible as well. For just one complicating example, consider two populations of students tested in 8th and 11th grades:

2009 8th grade math score — 87

2010 8th grade math score — 72

2012 11th grade math score — 85

2013 11th grade math score — 83

It appears, if we focus on simple increases from one year to the next, that the 2013 scores dropped 2 points from 2012. But a close inspection shows that the 2009/2012 scores (same population of students plus/minus drop-outs and other population shifts) remained about the same (a small drop), but that the 2013 score of 83 may easily be a really impressive increase of the 2010 score, from 72 to 83 by the same population of students. However, what if the 2010-2013 increase was the result of an unusual loss of low scoring students due to drop outs, expulsions, and a shifting population of non-native language learners?

In short, ever-increasing outcomes is neither something we should seek, nor something we can make simple claims about. The hypothetical data above could reveal dozens of conclusions, with few having anything to do with achievement, teaching quality, or school quality.

“Over the course of his research, Mr. Shyamalan found data debunking many long-held educational theories. For example, he found no evidence that teachers who had gone through masters programs improved students’ performance; nor did he find any confirmation that class size really mattered. What he did discover is plenty of evidence that, in the absence of all-star teachers, schools were most effective when they put in place strict, repetitive classroom regimens.” Again, really? If fact, the many claims in this passage are a series of powerful public narratives (ones found,  and debunked, in the propagandistic Waiting for “Superman”) that themselves are not reflected in educational research (for example, class size, or better described as student/teacher ratio, does matter—as revealed in rigorous research and as a market mechanism represented by the small class sizes found in elite K-12 schools and universities).

The piece on Shyamalan having an epiphany about education while talking with friends who are doctors is strikingly similar to the Bill Gates phenomenon, both revealing a message that is being ignored: Wealth, celebrity, and success in one field does not guarantee expertise in other fields.

As an educator myself, one who has studied the history of educational thought from the late 1900s until today very closely, I am compelled to ask Shyamalan and Gates why they believe they have discovered ideas that no one else spending her/his whole life and career on education has considered before Shyamalan or Gates. How credible does it seem that a movie director and two medical doctors chatting could suddenly imagine ways to do schools that no one else in the field has imagined?

I’m not saying there is no chance, but it takes a great deal of arrogance and an absence of awareness to make the claims Shyamalan and Gates have made—notably since many of those claims are in fact not supported by research although Shyamalan and Gates claim they are.

There’s more, of course, because despite the simplistic claims surrounding education and education reform (“poverty is not destiny,” “no excuses”), education is a complex process that is rarely predictable and essentially never completed.

However, I remain compelled to ask the media, politicians, reformers, b/millionaires, and celebrities to set aside their assumptions and reset the education reform debate by beginning again but this time begin with the expertise and experience that already exist among educators and within the field of education.

And let me suggest that we step back from how best to create an accountability system, recognizing that accountability, new standards, and new tests have not succeeded for thirty years and thus are unlikely to work now because the key challenges of education have nothing to do with a lack of or the quality of accountability, standards, and testing.

That new beginning, then, must stop focusing on outcomes and start focusing on input and the conditions of teaching and learning. Ironically, that change is likely to bear fruit, the types of outcomes we have asked for all along.

* Zais’s argument builds on a similar argument: “This new system has many advantages over the old federal and the current state accountability systems. The new system has three important elements we are committed to maintaining: yearly progress, transparency and timeliness.”

Clarifying Common Core Compromise (part 2)

My initial Common Core compromise was intentionally brief—in part to make it accessible and, ultimately, as a concession that it details elements unlikely to be embraced by the political and corporate leaders driving CC-mania.

While I remain north of skeptical, able to see clearly cynicism, about the possibility that my compromise will be embraced, I did receive enough response—and many important concerns—to justify a follow up, clarifying a few key concepts behind my compromise.

First, the foundational motivation for the compromise is to highlight that both CC (and the entire accountability movement) and the USDOE are, as currently functioning, deeply flawed structures, each working to ruin universal public education. The flaws at the root of CC and the USDOE are related to bureaucracy, political/partisan corruption (a redundancy, I realize), and predatory corporations (the private feeding on public funds).

Next, the elements in my compromise are designed to re-imagine CC as a genuine mechanism of change—to end the current accountability era and spur a new era of authentic commitments to social and educational equity and opportunity and to end the USDOE as a political/partisan bureaucratic nightmare and re-invision the USDOE as a centralized and professional ministry of education that serves the public good and the people.

So here are a few clarifications directed at the concerns raised so far:

  • Ending high-stakes testing accomplishes a few key reforms: (a) ending the disaster capitalism of Pearson and other corporations that benefit from crisis discourse about schooling, feeding on precious public funds, (b) ending a historically bankrupt tradition of linking test scores to individual students, teachers, and schools (using NAEP, random sampling, and broad data sets), and thus, addressing privacy concerns (NAEP data not linked to individual students but creating longitudinal data bases by states), ending high-stakes accountability, and stemming the tide of value-added methods designed to de-professionalize teachers.
  • Transforming the USDOE to a centralized, professional, and responsive ministry of education does not mean I am calling for standardization or “government control of schools.” In fact, I am calling for the exact opposite of those concerns. Centralized does not mean standardized. Currently, the US has a public workforce composed of public school teachers and publicly funded university professors that includes all the expertise and knowledge needed to create the resources every public school in the US needs. As I detailed, the USDOE centralizes all materials, resources, and assessments (NAEP), but  centralized must not mandate for any schools. Instead, each school will base needs on the populations of students being served, and then the USDOE becomes a centralized (thus creating an equity of opportunity) resource to serve the needs expressed by each school. Education must begin with each student and work outward.
  • Although I didn’t directly note this before, I also envision once we end high-stakes testing and move to NAEP-like data sets (similar to what Finland does), we must then expand dramatically the evidence used to monitor and reform further our schools.

Is it possible for educators, scholars, researchers, and community members who believe in public education and the essential nature of the Commons for a free people to take the tool of oppression (Common Core) and turn it against the very people who created it?

I wonder, yes, I wonder.

And when I wonder, I think about—despite all its flaws—the film Gandhi, and the spirit found in key scenes of a people coming to embrace their own freedom:

Brigadier: You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India!

Gandhi: Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.

Can a spirit of non-cooperation grow from a solidarity around CC as a true mechanism of reform?

Nehru: Bapuji, the whole country is moving.

Gandhi: Yes. but in what direction?