Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.

For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.

Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.

As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).

In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.

Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.

Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.

What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.

I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.

I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.

However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.

Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.

As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.

Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?

If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?

As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.

I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.

Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.

Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.

Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?

I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.

When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.

Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.

I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.

And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.

“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.

Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.

Jumping Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire, and Other Anti-Common Core Nonsense

“Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has decided that the state should drop the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test,” reports Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week, adding, “and instead use the ACT Aspire test.”

Also in Education Week, Ujifusa explains:

South Carolina was one of three states last year—along with Indiana and Oklahoma—to require a replacement for the Common Core State Standards, amid a volatile political climate and challenges states have faced in implementing the standards.

SC has also opted for ACT Aspire testing, and all these changes are characterized as follows:

That shift has led to what state officials say is a calmer political climate for South Carolina’s public schools, support from a broad spectrum of K-12 and higher education leaders, and new standards that the state itself says are very closely aligned to the common core.

If fact, many states have begun to backpedal away from Common Core as well as the related PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing—so much so that many have begun to announce the end of Common Core before the national standards have really been implemented.

Release the doves! Raise the horns! Hallelujah!!!

Well, no, these and other anti-Common Core nonsense are more literary than religious: Much ado about nothing.

Careful examination of both adopting Common Core and then the backlash resulting in dropping Common Core reveals that states remain firmly entrenched in the same exact accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing that has overburdened education since the 1980s.

The names and letters change, but not much else—except for throwing more money at a game of wasteful politics labeled “reform.”

Political posturing and public responses to all this Common Core puffery suggest that the next time a hurricane is plowing toward U.S. soil, the Weather Channel can lessen public panic by simply announcing a kitten is off the coast of Florida.

New and different standards and tests—these are jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

We need to abandon ship.

Let’s stop trying to win the (fixed) game of accountability, and instead create a new, fair game that addresses equity of opportunity for all students.

The Unintended (and Mostly Ignored) Lesson of Common Core: Race Inequity

You would be well advised to read Andre Perry’s examination of Common Core and race, carefully and possibly more than once: How Common Core serves white folks a sliver of the black experience.

I would also like to draw your attention to two key points that may get lost in the provocative and powerful crux of Perry’s piece:

I simply can’t manufacture the passion for or against curricula reboots or changes that eventually must happen. I’m sure there’s someone still lobbying for Home Economics as a required course, but gladly most have progressed. The researcher in me can’t argue against wanting a better means to measure educational performance nationwide. However, having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students [emphasis added]. Still, I know that kids overcome….

As Sen. Lamar Alexander-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. rewrite No Child Left Behind, they must consider giving teachers the freedom to teach while providing consequences to those districts and schools that don’t provide the education all students deserve [emphasis added].

Finally, I want to make two responses to Perry’s piece—with the caveat that I am not suggesting my perspective is better but that I have held nuanced differences with some of the important issues Perry is raising.

First, unlike Perry, I do not support Common Core because I do not support any standards changes as well as the inevitable high-stakes testing standards-based reform produce because—as Perry himself notes above—standards and high-stakes testing have not (and will/can not) create the equity in education all children deserve.

And finally, I am an advocate for the inverse of what Perry has scathingly recognized about the backlash against Common Core: “Common Core is serving white folks a sliver of the black experience.”

Education reform needs to make two dramatic shifts: (1) Commit to social reform first, and then (2) address equity of opportunity for all students (again, as Perry notes above).

My grand plan would be not that we subject privileged children (mostly white) to the horribly inadequate and criminally reduced educational experiences that have failed black and brown children for decades, but that we grant black and brown children the dignity they deserve by guaranteeing them the rich and rewarding educational experiences that privileged children have received on top of their privileged lives for decades as well.

As Perry highlights:

Black, brown and poor people take tests every single day. Confrontations with police, hunger, unemployment and biased teachers overshadow the feelings of taking computerized tests. Low expectations, a lack of inclusion, a leaky teacher pipeline for communities of color, and punishing disciplinary policies [hyperlink added] all threaten authentic learning and teaching more than PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests ever will.

For good reason, people in the ’hood have always been more worried with how test results are used.

It is no flippant call to say that all black and brown children deserve the schooling Barack Obama’s daughter have—and not the abusive and insulting “no excuses” charter schools many now must endure.

Ultimately, any aspect of the Common Core debate is an inexcusable distraction—”it’s easier to shout down Common Core than battle for a viable solution to our accountability problem,” Perry acknowledges—and it is thus vital that we open our eyes as Perry demands we do.

CQ Researcher: Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

The April 2015 issue of CQ Researcher includes a question on Common Core: Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking?

My answer is: No, and I argue in part:

Accountability and standards intended to drive higher expectations of students — expectations labeled today as “critical thinking” or “higher-order thinking skills” — always come down to this: What is tested is what is taught. Because all states implementing Common Core have also adopted high- stakes testing, students will not be asked to think critically. They will be prepared to take tests.

In the context of standardized testing, higher-order thinking skills are not critical but are discrete skills that lend themselves to efficient teaching and testing formats. True critical thinking involves investigating a text — moving beyond decoding and comprehension to challenging claims and agendas and examining historical influences. Thus, it is difficult to test in multiple-choice formats….

Ironically, a critical reading of Common Core standards exposes a commitment to more of the same failed approach that masks yet more test prep as critical thinking.

While CQ Researcher is subscription-only, if you are university-based, you are likely to have access.

See Teaching Critical Thinking, and then Pro/Con.

Related

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

Research-based Options for Education Policymaking: Common Core State Standards, William Mathis

De-professionalization for Profit: “Leery of teachers”

In Common Core’s unintended consequence?, Jonathan Sapers examines a report from the Center for Education Policy (CEP), self-described as “a national, independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools.”

CEP has discovered “that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.”

As has been the pattern throughout roughly thirty years of public school accountability—one characterized by a revolving door of state standards and high-stakes testing—new standards and tests mean profit opportunities for education-focused businesses.

Sapers reports:

However, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers, said publishers are pulling their weight. “We have more than 150 members in our PreK-12 Learning Group. And the ones I’ve seen over the past several years or more have tried very hard to align with Common Core standards in reading and math.”…

Some teachers and districts are viewing the dearth of materials as an opportunity, but experts and even some educators say putting the job of creating curriculum materials into the hands of teachers may not necessarily be a good thing [emphasis added].

And this is where the article takes a troubling turn, as highlighted here:

leery of teachers

“Leery of Teachers”

My career as an educator includes 18 years teaching English in a SC public high school throughout the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the most recent 13 years as a teacher educator in higher education.

Those experiences and in my work teaching future teachers, I note that a powerful and problematic difference between a K-12 teacher and a college professor is the locus of authority in terms of the content of any course.

Historically and currently, the authority over content for K-12 teachers has too often been textbooks, curriculum guides, standards, and high-stakes tests.

For college professors, the single most important element of teaching authority is that professors are the locus of authority of the content they teach; in fact, many if not most college professors have little or no formal training in pedagogy, how to teach.

The great irony of this distinction is that between K-12 teachers and professors, K-12 teachers have the greater expertise in teaching, but a far reduced status as a professional when compared to professors.

Along with the locus of authority over the content, the status of professional is strongly related to autonomy and respect—which brings me back to the “unintended consequence” above.

The attitude toward K-12 teachers not having time to create curriculum is valid, but the reason they do not have time includes the incessant changing of bureaucratic mandates that consume their time and that K-12 teachers do not have professional schedules (which professors do) in which to conduct research and create curriculum (which are often related at the university level).

However, the “leery” as well as the unsubstantiated claim that teachers do not have the “professional background” to create curriculum is a genuinely ugly example of the de-professionalization of teaching—a process aided by a historical marginalizing of teaching (significantly as an element of professional sexism), the bureaucratizing of teaching, and the union-busting momentum in recent years.

We should be exploring the real intended consequence of Common Core: billions are to be made off the standards and testing charade, and teachers creating their own curriculum and materials infringes on that profit.

Teaching at all levels includes curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but central to those elements are the unique set of students each teacher faces every day.

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment mean almost nothing without the context of students, and the only person qualified to make those decisions is the teacher.

If we must be leery, let’s be leery about think tanks, publishing companies, and mainstream media who all seem to have little respect for the professionalism of teaching.

See Also

Teaching: Too Hard for Teachers, Peter Greene

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.

References

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Having taught writing to teenagers and young adults at the high school and undergraduate levels for over thirty years now, I have a standard approach to the first few classes: We identify and then unpack and challenge the lessons the students have learned about writing.

For these foundational lessons to work, however, I have to gain the trust of my students so that they are open and honest about the real lessons (or more accurately framed as “rules” they have conformed to implementing). One of the best moments in this process is when I very carefully ask them to explain to me how they decide when to use commas.

Usually someone is willing to confess: “I put commas when I pause.” And then I ask who else uses that strategy, and essentially every time most, if not all, of the students raise their hands.

Next, I help them trace just how this completely flawed rule entered into their toolbox as writers. I note that when they were first learning to read, especially when they were being taught to read aloud, teachers in the first, second, and third grades likely stressed how we pause slightly at commas and a bit more at periods when reading aloud.

Students usually nod their heads, recalling those early lessons, and even specific teachers.

The next part is tricky and really important. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then, students receive a good deal of direct grammar instruction, often framed as rules (although this is a key problem of such instruction), often done in isolation (the ultimate fatal flaw of grammar instruction), and almost universally offered well before students have reached the level of abstract reasoning (brain development) necessary to understand how grammar works as a system [1].

Throughout most of my teaching career at the high school level, students were issued a traditional grammar text (Warriner’s [2]), and in that text, commas had an entire chapter and something like 47 rules. Since most students were uninterested, unmotivated, and incapable of understanding all that dense information on commas, they simply did what most humans would do—fabricate something they could manage from the information they understood.

Thus many students flip a reading aloud guideline that associates commas with pausing into a horribly inadequate “rule” for punctuating sentences.

As a teacher of writing, then, I am vividly aware of how we have traditionally misled students with both our reading and our writing policies, significantly grounded in prescriptive and mechanistic approaches to language—approaches that teach the wrong lessons and do more harm than good.

That awareness leads me to recognize that the current Common Core movement is likely to increase that problem, not address the need to implement effective and thoughtful reading and writing policy.

For one example is the concern raised in Common Core calls for kids to read books that ‘frustrate’ them. Is that a good idea? by Russ Walsh:

The Common Core, in its pursuit of “college and career readiness,” calls for ramping up the complexity of texts read by children in all grades after second grade. Some reading educators, including University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Tim Shanahan, have argued that this means we should not be focused on having students read in texts at their instructional level, but in texts that are at their frustration level.

This call for students reading at the “frustration level,” sadly, is nothing knew.

Student have typically been required to read texts that don’t match either their language development or their background or perceptions of existence—works that are to them needlessly complex and difficult simply to comprehend (much less interpret).

Take for example nearly any student reading Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Setting aside that plays were never intended to be read texts, both of these works are variations of English so far removed from contemporary students that (just as they have done with comma/pausing rules) they decide that all good writing must be impenetrable—arcane words, labyrinthine sentences.

As a result, when I stress that good writing must be specific, concrete, coherent, and above all else clear, students are baffled.

Common Core, again, appears to me nothing new; as I have noted “close reading” is New Criticism repackaged. But I do fear that calls for students reading at frustration levels are likely to perpetuate the very worst of traditional reading policies and practices.

Reading and writing are the core of all learning, and as such, we should take much greater care that our reading and writing policy is grounded in healthy and effective approaches to literacy. We must also recognize that our reading practices feed our writing practices.

As has been all too common in formal schooling, Common Core appears poised to once again drive misguided reading policy that will teach our students the wrong lessons as young writers.

And if nothing else, that puts me at a constant frustration level.

[1] See Ann L. Warner’s “If the Shoe No Longer Fits, Wear It Anyway?” English Journal, (September 1993):

Why Do Students Not Retain Knowledge of Grammar?

We English teachers must ask ourselves why students do not retain what they learn about grammar. Is it because we don’t hold them accountable for it? Are high-school teachers right to complain that they shouldn’t have to teach grammar because their students should already know it? Or is it possible that students don’t retain this knowledge because they aren’t intellectually ready to understand it before high school? Are the linguistic concepts of grammar too abstract for younger students?Jean Piaget, Laurence Kohlberg, and other psychologists maintain that individuals experience sequential levels of cognitive development. Some studies suggest that only about half the adolescent and adult population reaches the highest levels of formal operational thinking (Reimer 1983, 37)—which may well be the level of abstraction required to grasp the fundamentals of traditional English grammar. Jean Sanborn, in her article “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time,” maintains that “The study of grammar, of the ‘rules,’ belongs at the end of this process of linguistic development…” (1986, 77).

Tate Hudson’s dissertation work, reported briefly in “Great, No, Realistic Expectations: Grammar and Cognitive Levels” (1987), confirms Sanborn’s position. In her research, Hudson found that failure rates on grammar tests were dramatically higher for students not yet functioning at the abstract or formal stage of development. Only fourteen percent of the middle-school students she tested were at the stage of formal operations.

Perhaps the reason many students don’t retain grammar information is because they can’t. Ironically, the least verbally capable students are often the ones subjected to the most grammar instruction.

[2] I recommend instead Style, Joseph Williams

High Noon: “Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

High Noon at the Upcountry History Museum

2014 Fall Schedule

All lectures begin at noon on Wednesdays and last one hour. The Upcountry History Museum/Furman University is located at 540 Buncombe Street in downtown Greenville’s Heritage Green area (near the Greenville County Main Library and Greenville Little Theatre). For more information, contact Furman’s Marketing and Public Relations office at 864-294-2185 or e-mail Marie Newman-Rogers at marie.newman-rogers@furman.edu.

September 24

“Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, Furman University

Common Core is a national standards initiative in the U.S. that details what K-12 students should know, especially in the areas of math and English, in each grade in preparation for college and the workforce. While Common Core has created a great deal of debate between advocates and detractors across South Carolina, most of that debate has failed to address the key questions we should be asking about reforming education in our state. Professor Thomas will examine what (almost) everyone is getting wrong about Common Core—and what we should be doing instead.

You know, you’d think someone with Lauren’s experience would understand you never tell the truth when you’re introducing someone. It’s kind of like a eulogy in reverse. I think the clear lesson from tonight is don’t ask Lauren to speak at your funeral. [Laughter] She clearly doesn’t understand what eulogy stands for….

One of them is the kind of humility she talked about, about qualifications. I actually think it’s really  important to try to base what I’m about to say to you on evidence I share with you rather than on the sands of my qualifications. So if I ask you or talk to you about doing something it should be evident that it makes sense to you to do, ’cause I have no other authority….

One of them is that these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation. It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period. So when you ask me, “What do we have to do over the next years?” we gotta do that. If we do anything else over the next two years and don’t do that, we are stupid and shall be betrayed again by shallow tests that demean the quality of classroom practice, period….

Student Achievement Partners, all you need to know about us are a couple things. One is we’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards…. (Remarks made by David Coleman)

Follow up and recommended:

Final Words of Advice and “Where do we go from here?” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Miracle schools wiki

Studies suggest economic inequity is built into, and worsened by, school systems

Schools Can’t Do It Alone: Why ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

Teacher Quality Mania: Backward by Design

Recommended: Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

New Schools, Old Problems [Review: Hope Against Hope], P. L. Thomas

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

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?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. 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.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

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

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

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.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.