Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

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Reader 22 May 2017 [UPDATED]: Connecting Dots

Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views

See: UPDATE 21 (20 May 2017): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Minorities Who ‘Whiten’ Résumés More Likely to Get Interview, Michael Harriot

“Whitening” is an all-encompassing term for when prospective employees scrub their résumés of anything that might indicate their race. Applicants with cultural names will sometimes use their initials. Community or professional work with African-American fraternities, sororities or other organizations are deleted. One student omitted a prestigious scholarship he was awarded because he feared it might reveal his race.

Although the practice sounds demeaning and reductive in the year 2017, apparently it works. In one study, researchers sent out whitened résumés and nonwhitened résumés to 1,600 employers. Twenty-five percent of black applicants received callbacks when their résumés were whitened, compared with 10 percent of the job seekers who left their ethnic details on the same résumés.

The results were the same for employers who advertised themselves as “equal opportunity employers” or said that “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.


Experts: Conflicts over Confederate names and symbols likely to continue, Paul Hyde

But Thomas said school administrators should encourage student debate over historical figures such as Wade Hampton — as an important lesson in democracy.

“If we really think that public education is to prepare people to live in a democracy, children need to have experiences with democratic processes,” Thomas said. “I think this specific protest should be seen as an opportunity for students to see what the democratic process looks like, with everybody’s voice mattering. Principals and superintendents of public schools — they have incredibly hard jobs — but they are the people who have to show students what moral courage is. If administrators and teachers can’t show moral courage, how do we expect our children to?”

See: Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document


When Standardized Tests Don’t Count | Just Visiting, John  Warner

And yet, when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable populations within Charleston County Schools, these standardized assessments provide a rational for top-down oversight and control.

This is entirely common and predictable. “Accountability” is often weaponized against those without the means to defend themselves.

I have no wish to upend the academic culture of the Citadel over their terrible CLA scores, but maybe some of those who are willing to give our elite storied places a pass can extend the same spirit to those who have no such protections.

See Are America’s top schools ‘elite’ or merely ‘selective?’

Why The New Sat Is Not The Answer, Akil Bello and James Murphy

If anything, the discord between them is likely to grow as the College Board pursues an equitable society using a test that is designed to mark and promote distinctions.

For all the positive changes the College Board has made, the new SAT shouldn’t be counted among them. It is a test, not a solution.

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse, Mike Taylor

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

  • Goodhart’s Law is most succinct: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • Campbell’s Law is the most explicit: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
  • The Cobra Effect refers to the way that measures taken to improve a situation can directly make it worse.

America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality, Jeff Guo

According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

UNEQUAL ENFORCEMENT: How policing of drug possession differs by neighborhood in Baton Rouge

BR inequity

UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”

UPDATE 19 April 2017

Since my post below, Benjamin Navarro, founder of Meeting Street Schools, submitted a Lady Macbeth-esque protest about the article linked below.

Navarro, I believe unintentionally, poses a very important question while challenging how the Post and Courier reported the excessive suspensions at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood: “Why not tell the whole story?”

While Navarro bristles at the suspension data, he is quick to offer a partial story about data he prefers, test scores:

And most important of all [emphasis added], why not talk about the enormous impact that Brentwood’s higher test scores have on the likely outcomes for these children? Why not report the fact that our students scored in the 71st percentile in reading and 73rd percentile in math (almost eliminating the bottom quartile), while other North Charleston Title One schools scored on average in the 42nd and 39th percentile respectively in 2016?

So let’s have a shot at the whole story because that is the problem with Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, with all so-called alternative approaches to public schools such as charter schools.

Currently, South Carolina is not holding schools accountable by the usual school report card until fall 2018. But the media, in fact, has been reporting glowing depictions of Brentwood, depending almost entirely on the school’s founder and leaders who are incentivized to paint the best picture possible of their experiment while concurrently (and dishonestly) falsely trashing Charleston public schools (see Navarro’s letter).

Navarro’s reference to test scores looks impressive; yet, he fails to provide the whole story about that data—and as I detail below, virtually every time the whole story comes out about miracle schools, that whole story proves there are no miracles.

Here, then, is what we need to know:

  • What test data are being cited? It is likely he is citing practice test data (such as MAP and ACT testing). We must confront if we truly believe that intensive test-prep and test scores are what any child deserves from formal schooling, if these claimed higher scores are from test prep, and why we allow this reduced form of education for poor and black/brown students while affluent and white students receive advanced courses, gifted programs, and all sorts of enrichment.
  • What is the attrition rate for Brentwood—the number of students originally enrolled compared to the number of students tested? Are suspension/expulsions and counseling out creating skewed test score data?
  • What percentage of English language learners (ELLs) and students with special needs are being tested, and then, are data from Brentwood being compared to other schools with similar demographics (and not just all Title One schools)?
  • Has Brentwood controlled for the extended school day/year to account for these claimed higher test scores, or are we being asked to compare student data under different conditions of learning? More teaching and learning time should produce higher scores; thus, Brentwood may have higher scores while not being able to claim that anything other than more time created that difference.
  • If, as advocates and Navarro claim, some unique practices by Meeting Street are causing greater student achievement, how can they prove those practices are causal and then that they are scalable? For example, what is the per-pupil expenditure, what are class sizes and student/teacher ratios, and what can Brentwood do that traditional public schools cannot (such as refuse to serve ELLs or special needs students)?
  • What race and social class biases are driving our willingness to create schools for high poverty and black/brown students that are committed to “no excuses” and zero tolerance discipline practices?

Advocates for Brentwood, including Navarro, are trafficking in partial stories by failing to be transparent about their claims of miracles while refusing to accept data that tarnishes those claims.

Until all of the questions above are answered by making that data transparent to independent analysis (not by those invested in the success of Brentwood), we are forced to suffer under partial stories that serve no one well.


Original Post: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim

Published on Easter Sunday 2017 in the Post and Courier, Paul Bowers offered what I suspect will be a slow and painful series of unfortunate evidence that will discredit claims of educational miracles at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood; in this case, the public/private partnership elementary school has a unique and extreme suspension problem:

Meeting St suspensions copy

As a public/private venture, as a school choice and reform mechanism, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood is trapped in the need to advocate, sell its process. And since South Carolina has not held this experiment to the traditional school report card transparency, we are left only with the claims of school leaders.

However, we have well over a decade of “miracle” school bluster, all of which has been dismantled—suggesting that, I am sorry to say during this holiday season, there are no miracles.

While the school report card based mostly on high-stakes testing data is a significant failure of education reform, South Carolina’s report card system has included a key way to know if schools are in fact outperforming other schools, using the “Schools with Students Like Ours” metric (which I have detailed multiple times exposes that charter schools are no different, and possibly less effective, than traditional public schools in our state):

However, analyses from two years of report cards for charter schools in SC reveal the clear picture that more investment is not justified (see below for complete analysis of both years’ comparisons):

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

And thus, this disturbing suspension data about an elementary school are just the beginning of what I can predict will happen as the evidence grows against the claims of this school somehow is accomplishing what other schools have not, cannot accomplish.

First, the evidence is very clear that “high-flying schools” are extreme outliers, constituting about 1.1% of high-poverty schools. This means two things: (1) if Meeting Street does achieve some sort of high-flying status, it will be in extremely rare company, and thus, (2) outliers prove virtually nothing about what most schools can and should accomplish (outliers often include key elements that cannot be scaled to all schools).

Next, the huge caution about any claims of miracle success on test scores at Meeting Street must be couched in their extended day and academic year. This technique has driven the false but powerful propaganda from KIPP charter schools that conveniently leave out that when you identify learning as months or years of growth, and you extend the learning time, the raw data growth is actually the same growth rate as other schools.

Comparing students with more teaching and learning time to other students with less is just one way advocates of charters and miracle schools mislead the public.

Remaining questions—some linked to suspension and expulsion patterns—include how any school’s test scores are impacted by student attrition (counseling out, expulsion, etc.), the percentage of special needs and English language learners served (when compared to traditional public schools), and the impact of self-selection (which can skew even claims that a school is serving a high-poverty population of students).

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood will prove, once again, to be evidence of the inherent problems with education form, and no miracle at all.

Our most vulnerable students—impoverished, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students—are disproportionately the targets of educational reform/experiments grounded in test-mania and harsh discipline policies and outcomes (see here, here, and here).

To be blunt, good intentions of administrators and teachers in our traditional public schools have not been enough, and now, those same good intentions among reformers cannot be justification for false claims and failed policies and practices.

Practices and fads such as exit exams, “no excuses” mantras, “grit” and  growth mindset, zero-tolerance discipline, and the larger accountability movement churning through standards and high-stakes testing—these have all increased the existing problems with inequity in our schools and society, and have miserably failed the students who need nurturing and effective schooling the most.

Miracle school claims are that human-sized Easter bunny; but that is just some stranger in a suit pretending to be a bunny, and it isn’t really appealing so much as something we should be very leery of approaching, especially with children.

bunny3

Don’t Buy Bluster from Teacher Quality VAM-pires

The responses are predictable online and through social media any time I address teacher quality and policy focusing on teacher evaluation such as my recent commentary on Charleston adopting value-added methods (VAM).

How dare I, some respond, suggest that teacher quality does not matter!

The pattern is exhausting because most responding in indignation first misrepresent what I have claimed and then make the most extreme arguments themselves in order to derail the conversation along their own agenda, usually linked to the charter school movement grounded in teacher bashing and making unobtainable promises.

So let me state here that the central elements of what we know about teacher quality and efforts such as VAM-based teacher evaluation is that teacher quality is not an independent variable (any teacher may be effective for one student and ineffective for another, for example) and, since student high-stakes testing is not designed to measure teacher quality and is more strongly linked to out-of-school factors, VAM is both a horrible technique for identifying teacher quality and, ironically, a guaranteed process for devaluing the importance of teachers.

Teacher quality is unparalleled in importance in terms of student learning, but it is also nearly impossible to measure, quantify—especially through student scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

Teacher quality VAM-pires, then, often have agendas [1] that are masked by their bluster about teacher quality.

Trying to measure and quantify teacher quality is a mistake; linking any evaluation of teacher quality to student test scores lacks validity and reliability—and VAM discourages teachers from teaching the most challenging populations of students (high-poverty, special needs, English language learners).

Focusing on simplistic and inappropriate measures reduces teacher impact to 10-15% of what high-stakes standardized testing measures; in other words, VAM itself devalues teacher quality.

My informed argument, based on 18 years as a public school classroom teacher and 15 years as a teacher educator and scholar, then, is that we must recognize teacher quality is impacted by teacher preparation, teaching/learning conditions, student characteristics, and dozens of other factors inside and outside of schools—many of which are beyond the control of teachers or students.

As well, we must address the teacher quality issues that political and administrative leaders can control: class size, school funding, and most important of all, teacher assignment.

Just as decades of research have revealed that teacher quality accounts for no more than 10-15% of student test scores, decades of research show that affluent and white students are assigned the most experienced and certified teachers while poor and black/brown students are assigned new/inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

The charter school crowd’s bluster about teacher quality is pure hokum because charter schools increase that inequity of teacher assignment by depending on new and uncertified teachers such as candidates from Teach For America.

No one is saying teacher quality does not matter—I clearly am not saying that—but dishonesty about teacher quality does lay at the feet of the edu-reformers and the VAM-pires who wave their collective arms any time we call them on their failed policies and their political agendas.


[1] See the evangelical urge of Broad-trained acolytes, the resume building and cut-and-run patterns of edu-reformers, and the post-truth practices of turn-around and charter advocacy.

Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): CCSD plan for teachers won’t work

Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): CCSD plan for teachers won’t work

[see full submission with hyperlinks below]

Charleston School District Arriving Late to a Very Bad Party

P.L. Thomas, Professor, Furman University

The most telling aspect of Charleston County School District’s announcement about holding teachers accountable for student test scores may be in the second paragraph of Paul Bowers’s coverage: “District leaders say they don’t want to fire anyone — particularly not in the midst of a statewide teacher shortage that’s only getting worse.”

While it appears some are aware of the unintended consequences of new education policy, we must be concerned that such awareness has not helped better inform this recent decision to move forward with using value-added methods (VAM) in teacher evaluations.

Early research warned and current studies confirm that VAM fails to fulfill political promises, but also feeds existing problems. This pattern has been seen with school choice increasing segregation, exit exams causing higher drop-out rates, and high-stakes tests driving teaching to the test, asking far less of students.

First, we should acknowledge the flawed logic driving the use of VAM to increase teacher accountability. The recent concern about teacher quality is grounded in several false assumptions.

One is the “bad” teacher myth strongly associated with the stereotypical unionized teacher as portrayed in Waiting for Superman.

However, across the U.S. teachers in unionized states produce students with higher test scores that teachers in non-union (called right-to-work) states such as South Carolina. The problem with associating teacher quality and low student outcomes with union protection is that student test scores are more powerfully associated with poverty than any other factor.

This leads to the other false assumption that teacher quality is the most or one of the most important causes of student learning. In fact, teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of standardized test scores, the basis of VAM, while out-of-school factors remain the greatest influence, at 60%.

A final assumption is that using test data to evaluate teachers is objective and valid, and thus fair. Yet, many teachers are in content areas without standardized tests, and then, ironically, making any set of data high-stakes causes that data to be less credible (see Campbell’s Law).

Student test scores are poor evidence about teacher quality, and making those scores central to evaluating teachers is guaranteed to further erode that evidence’s usefulness and the process.

Matthew Di Carlo, blogging for the Albert Shanker Institute, details the unintended consequences of VAM as implemented in Houston.

While assessing the Houston teacher evaluation system, Julie Berry Cullen, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons discovered that teachers identified as weaker by their student test scores were already leaving at high rates before the new system was implemented in order to identify weak teachers.

In other words, Houston adopted a policy without investigating whether or not teacher quality was the key problem, without acknowledging that with high teacher attrition among so-called weaker teachers, schools were not achieving in ways they envisioned.

Here is one powerful lesson of education reform: Do not adopt a policy until you gather evidence of the problems; and assumptions about those problems are not enough.

After Houston adopted VAM-based evaluation of teacher, as Di Carlo explains, teachers identified by test scores as weak were even more likely to leave, but:

On the other hand, all exits increased under the new evaluations — including among teachers who were rated as average and high performers. The extent to which this spike is attributable to the new evaluation system per se is unclear, but it served to “dilute” the impact on student achievement of the increase in exits among low performers. There is also some indication that higher-rated teachers were more likely to switch out of schools with low-performing students after ETI (versus before the policy), which would also attenuate the impact of the policy.

Historically and currently, Charleston has a teacher problem, yet Houston is a powerful example of how VAM is not the solution to those problems.

The remaining challenge is recruiting and maintaining experienced and certified teachers in the schools that serve the most vulnerable students from high-poverty homes and communities.

The new policy linking teacher evaluations with student test scores will not address those challenges, and we can expect it will actually increase challenges to recruit new teachers and stem teacher attrition.

By adopting VAM and investing in critically discredited system, EVAAS, Charleston County School District is late to a very bad party. The students and community would be better served by making sure we know what the teacher quality problems are and then seeking ways to address those instead of choosing political expediency and wasting tax dollars on policies and programs already shown to fail.

Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton

Crass Edupolitics, Failed Mainstream Media in South Carolina

An Op-Ed in The State and Paul Bower’s Charter school advocates shifting gears in South Carolina (The Post and Courier) inadvertently reveal the same message: South Carolina remains mired in crass edupolitics.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN have become SouthCarolinaCAN, but the merging and renaming hasn’t changed a truly ugly fact: these education advocacy groups across the US have no credibility and are created to provide individuals political platforms that benefit the so-called leaders and the pro-privatization forces funding and supporting these constantly morphing organizations.

Yet mainstream media continues to allow these groups and their leaders significant platforms for their misleading propaganda while educators are nearly absent from the public debate.

Crass edupolitical organizations are a sham, but as long as mainstream media continues to shirk their responsibility to support credible sources, it is the media who are at fault here.

Edujournalism has been and continues to be one of the elements contributing to post-truth fake news.

The crass edupolitics infecting SC remains committed to failed policies such as takeover districts, charter schools, and school choice because these organizations and their leaders are not concerned about education, but about their own political agendas.

Since I have addressed these issues repeatedly, I offer here a few posts below:

The Zombie Politics of School Choice: A Reader

Resisting Fatalism in Post-Truth Trumplandia: Charter Schools and the End of Accountability

The Post and Courier: Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts

The media must choose credibility over press-release journalism if our public institutions, such as public schools, and our democracy has a chance to recover from post-truth fake news.


For Further Reading

‘Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New