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

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Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Elite or Selective?: Reconsidering Who We Educate and How

Sharde Miller’s California teen describes his road from Compton to Harvard University offers a powerful subtext about the American Dream as well as the enduring belief in education as the “great equalizer,” embodied by Elijah Devaughn Jr.:

Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades….

“Getting accepted into a prestigious university like Harvard, I think it means the world,” Devaughn said. “It means God is able. It means that hard work pays off. It means that, you know, struggles end.”

What if we unpack the label of “prestigious” by making an important caveat: Is Harvard University elite or selective?

As a point of reference, over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability in public education, schools have been annually labeled as excelling and failing; however, once we look beneath the A-F rankings, a strong and consistent correlation persists between schools identified as excelling or failing and the socio-economic status of the students [1] (as well as the racial and language demographics).

Consider also that for every year of the SAT being administered, average scores have fallen perfectly in correlation with parental income and parental years of education [2].

My university has begun gathering data to analyze our impact on students. The university is selective, having high standards for the academic backgrounds and achievements of students.

Some initial data are telling. When students with high preparation are compared to students with low preparation, extrapolating over four years of college, high preparation students are more successful and the gap with low preparation students widens during years 2 and 3 and then never closes by year 4 (year 1 and year 4 gaps are about the same).

If we persist in suggesting that education is the great equalizer (despite ample evidence education does not, in fact, equalize) and a foundational mechanism of the American Dream, we must reconsider how and why we identify any schools as “prestigious.”

Alexander W. Astin’s Are You Smart Enough? seeks to examine if our prestigious and excelling schools are elite or merely selective. Astin exposes part of the problem with labeling colleges, for example, as “prestigious”:

The “quality” or “excellence” of a college or university is thus judged on the basis of the average test score of its entering students, rather than on how well it educates them once they enroll.

What is lost in the rush to ascribe success and failure to schools is, as Astin argues, the essential charge of any formal schooling:

On the contrary, the quality of our national talent pool depends heavily on how well colleges and university develops the students’ capacities during the college years. And this mean all students.

And thus, Astin asserts: “More parents need to be asking, ‘Why should an educational system invest the least in the students who may need the most in higher education?'”

Here, then, is the dirty little secret: “Prestigious school” (K-12 as well as colleges/universities) is a veneer for “selective,” not “elite” in terms of the educational impact but in terms of the conditions at those schools.

Public universities are less selective than private liberal arts colleges, and the former experience is distinct from the latter in, for example, faculty/student ratios, class size.

In other words, more academically successful students tend to be from more affluent and well educated parents, and then are afforded higher education experiences that are identifiably superior to relatively less successful students from lower levels of affluence and education.

Reconsidering how we label schools, the “selective” versus “elite” divide, is a first step in seeking ways to turn a tarnished myth (“education is the great equalizer”) into a reality.

Too often “prestigious” and “elite” are code for “selective,” praising a college/university for gatekeeping, and not educating; too often “excellent” and “failing” are code for student demographics, ranking K-12 schools for proximity, and not educating.

Testing, ranking, and accountability in the U.S. have entrenched social and educational inequity because, as Astin confronts, “there are two very different uses for educational assessment: (a) to rank, rate, compare, and judge the performance of different learners and (b) to enhance the learning process.”

We have chosen the former, pretending as well that those metrics reflect mostly merit although they are overwhelming markers of privilege.

Let’s return to Devaughn as a rags-to-riches story.

Late in the article we learn Devaughn attended private school before his acceptance to Harvard—again bringing us back to the issue of opportunity and what we are learning at my university about well prepared students versus less prepared students.

Devaughn’s story should not be trivialized, but carefully unpacked, it does not prove what I think it intended to show. The American Dream and claims education is the great equalizer are, in fact, deforming myths.

Race, gender, and the socioeconomic factors of homes and communities remain resilient causal factors in any person’s opportunities and success:

All schools at any level must re-evaluate who has access to the institution, and why, and then focus on what impact the educational experience has on those students. Therein must be the evidence for determining excellence and prestige.


[1] See here and here for examples in South Carolina.

[2] See The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

What’s Really Wrong with Advanced Placement Courses and College Board?

“Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes,” asserts John Tierney, adding, ” To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement [A.P.] courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.”

Tierney calling the A.P. program from the College Board a scam may seem at first to be at best hyperbole and at worst, baseless screed.

But I find Tierney’s arguments are important as one more door opening into what is wrong with the College Board broadly, as well as what is wrong with A.P. more specifically.

Let me offer some context for my assertions to follow.

First, I am no fan of the College Board’s SAT, having addressed the class-, race-, and gender-based flaws with the SAT for at least two decades now—along with confronting the more recent flaws with the 2005 addition of writing on the SAT, the David Coleman planned reboot, and the proposed relationship with the Khan Academy.

However, from 1984 until 2002, while teaching high school English in a rural South Carolina public school, I always taught either advanced feeder courses, A.P. Literature courses, or both.

My experience with A.P. in a small impoverished high school that often ranked first in the state for highest percentage of students enrolled in A.P. courses was not typical because our district policy was to push as many students up into the advanced track as possible (occasionally with those students and their parents kicking and screaming). As well, my A.P. students hovered around scoring 3 or above at about only a 50% rate—whereas at nearby high schools, A.P. was a strictly gated program and those teachers were expected to have 3 or above rates at 100% [1].

The commitment of my district also included that my classes were very small and I had nearly complete autonomy for the content of the courses and how I taught the courses.

As a result of the unusual context of my A.P. experience as a public school teacher, my background is mostly positive in terms of how well we prepared students for college within our unique implementation of the A.P. program (notably disregarding—or at least greatly expanding—the College Board’s guidelines for gatekeeping that existed in those years).

Like the SAT, the College Board’s A.P. program experienced changes in who took the exams throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during my public teaching career. Since the early 2000s, A.P. programs have increasingly lost value at the university level (as Tierney points out and Schneider details, and as I have witnessed, colleges are often likely to give less or different credit than parents and students expect, and for much higher scores).

The A.P. program has also received criticism (again like the SAT) for inherent inequity problems, mostly about the lack of diversity in who has access to the courses or the score gaps among race and class groups.

But, this still leaves us with an important question regarding Tierney’s provocative claim: Are A.P. courses a scam?

My short answer is that we must come to terms with this: The A.P. program (as well as the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, Common Core, and all test-based practices and policies in education) is a deeply flawed distraction, as Jack Schneider concludes:

Without a doubt, programs like AP have their place. And in many schools AP remains a valuable addition to the curriculum. But when we pretend that all our schools need is the right reform, we erode our collective will to do the harder work required of us. We distract ourselves from our greater purposes. (see HERE and HERE for additional criticism of A.P. by Schneider)

While not unique to the program, A.P. ultimately fails the broader promise of universal public education in the following ways:

  • The A.P. program is grounded in gatekeeping (historically hard gatekeeping metrics as well as lingering soft gatekeeping dynamics) and tracking [2], both of which are counter to goals of equity in public schooling. As a result, A.P. scores share with SAT (and ACT) scores the power to perpetuate privilege and establish inequitable schools-within-schools.
  • The A.P. program is one example of the popular and political fetish for “top students”—a fabricated crisis that speaks to and perpetuates privilege [3].
  • A.P. tests further reinforce the reduction of learning and merit to single test scores generated from one testing session. As well, the importance of the A.P. score as a potential ticket to earning college credit (and the claim that this process can save students and their parents money) can and often reduces A.P. courses to teaching-to-the-tests.
  • Through the aura of being an “elite” program and by their selective nature, A.P. courses erode efforts to create educational settings that are equitable for all students. [The A.P. program was built on the allure of being elite, and regardless of the College Board’s claims for seeking equity and diversity, the A.P. program benefits from elitism and selectivity.]
  • The concept of “earning college credit while in high school” distorts and marginalizes the value of both student intellectual development and instructional time spent in courses. While I disagree in some respects with Tierney’s claim that A.P. course are rarely comparable to college-level courses (some A.P. Literature and A.P. Language courses are far more demanding than freshman composition courses), I would pose that it is essentially impossible to capture a college experience in a high school classroom—and there is no reason to seek that goal as well.
  • Thus, A.P. courses draw too much focus on attaining certain content and away form valuing the entire learning experience that is greater than content acquisition.
  • A.P. courses and programs are a secondary and additional financial drain on families (often indirectly) and public funding, yet another source of expenses (time and funding) for materials, tests, and training that would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Another part of the allure of the A.P. program is similar to the promise embedded in the Common Core—establishing a standard curriculum across the U.S. However, if the A.P. program shows us anything, it is that the goal of standardization is both misguided and impossible to attain. In this respect, the A.P. program may not be quite a scam, but it is a mirage.
  • And as Schneider emphasizes, A.P. courses suggest that all we need to do it get what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is tested right and then all will be well. Among almost all the current calls for in-school-only education reform, A.P. courses are distractions from needed social reform and in-school reform seeking equity.

My final point about the College Board’s A.P. program is the same as my argument about school choice: We need to create the sort of equitable public school curriculum for all students that would make A.P. courses unnecessary.

The best parts of my and my students’ experiences when I taught A.P.—small class sizes, teacher autonomy, rich content (mostly immune from censorship), administrative support—can and should be what all teachers and students experience as the norm of schooling—not the rare air of selective programs that cost parents and schools additional funds and time to create.

[1] At surrounding high schools (and common across the U.S.) in the 1980s and 1990s, students were often blocked from taking A.P. courses unless they had scored well on the PSAT or met other quantitative requirements set by schools. At one nearby high school, for example, that had a student body 3 to 4 times larger than where I taught, the A.P. Literature class was about the same number of students as the one I taught.

[2] See Moving Beyond Tracking, Mathis (2013)

[3] Satire Warning: See a post from 2011 below about the “top student” crisis:

Top Student Crisis!: A Call for Trickle-Down Education Reform

The elite minds at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute have unmasked a serious but neglected crisis in education:

[M]any high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness?

This study has prompted Room for Debate at The New York Times to ask: “Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift?”

The answer? According to Rick Hess, “We are shortchanging America’s brightest students, and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively.”

The top students in U.S. schools are in crisis, and the economic competitiveness of our country hangs in the balance. With this now exposed, I am calling for a move to trickle-down education reform, modeled on the trickle-down economic theories driving our commitment to avoid overtaxing the wealthy in the U.S. since they are our job creators and the backbone of our thriving economy.

Trickle-Down Education Reform

Trickle-down education reform requires our current education reform movement—spearheaded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Bill Gates, and student-first advocate Michelle Rhee—to shift its focus on the bottom 10% of student performance and apply their same reform to the top 10%. This transformation must include the following:

  • Initiate funding of Teach for America (TfA) to send their core of teachers to teach in high-needs schools serving the top 10% achieving students. This core must replace the current experienced and certified teachers now teaching the top students.
  • Initiate funding to support Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools to serve schools consisting only of the the top 10% of students. These top students must be held to “no excuses” and taught to form lines, make eye contact, shake hands, say “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” and chant daily words of inspiration that will serve them well in corporate America.
  • Place the top students in classes with 40-to-1 student/teacher ratios.
  • Eliminate all band, music, art, and PE courses at the schools serving the top students and insure that these students focus exclusively on math, ELA, and science in order to perform well on state and national tests.
  • Increase dramatically the number of tests top students take and provide these top students the intense test-prep they deserve.

Once these reforms have been implemented, of course, we must hold the TfA teachers and KIPP schools accountable for not only the test scores of these top students but also the trickle-down effect of these policies on the remaining 90% of students who are currently being served to the detriment of our top students.

As Michael J. Petrilli implores us:

But if we want to do right by our highest-achieving students — and maintain America’s international competitiveness — we should rethink the move to eradicate tracking. Future generations will thank us.

Looking at Wrong Outcomes, Missing the Lesson

The College Board has a recent history of recreating itself, notably the cyclical revision of the SAT and now a move to resurrect the Advanced Placement (AP) program.

While I am no fan of the College Board, specifically the problems related to the SAT, I taught most of my nearly two decades as a high school English teacher in a rural South Carolina public school either preparing my students for AP English courses (“advanced” feeder courses leading to Literature and Composition or Language and Composition) or teaching AP Literature and Composition.

Setting aside for a moment the conflicts of interest and disturbing self-promotion behind the College Board revamping AP courses on the heels of David Coleman turning his Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gig into being named president of College Board, consider Jack Schneider’s challenge to the new AP plan, which builds to this central criticism:

Evidence to the contrary, however, is all around us.  Look, for instance, at Mississippi, which has the lowest average household income in the U.S. and the highest percentage of African-American residents.  Given the way that educational resources are distributed, it should come as no surprise that nearly half of students taking AP exams in the state scored a 1 out of 5.  Only four percent of students scored a 5.  These are not the kinds of problems that the AP Program can solve.

In order to consider both the credibility of the College Board’s plan to reform their AP programs and Scheider’s critique, I want to focus first on a teacher story of mine, building on a key point made by Brian Jones about the inherent failure of CCSS and those who advocate for yet another standards and testing cycle:

I heard a woman who’s been involved with high-level education policy discussions defend the Common Core’s de-emphasis of personal narratives because, she argued, that’s not the kind of writing people need to do in college. At the end of her presentation, a teacher who opposed the Common Core standards asked her if she, as a teacher, could really do anything to influence policy. This same woman told her that the most powerful thing a teacher could do to influence policy would be to speak to lawmakers directly and tell a story — tell a specific story about how these policies affect her classroom. Without realizing it, she argued that personal narratives were not important for “college and career readiness”, but if you are setting out to change the world, personal narratives are the most powerful thing you’ve got [emphasis added].

If we let the corporations organize education, it will be an education that’s about fitting our children into their workplaces — into the narrow vision of working life that they have in store for the next generation.

As I noted above, I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the same rural Upstate SC high school that I had attended in the 1970s. During my years as a student in that school, no AP courses were offered, but during my college years, my former high school English teacher and mentor, Lynn Harrill, brought AP to the school.

In 1984, I assumed not only Lynn’s position in the English department but also his room. While it would take several years for me to earn the role of teaching in the AP program Lynn built, I eventually taught the feeder sophomore course into the program before later teaching AP Literature and Composition; I also as department chair added AP Language and Composition (taught by a colleague).

This high school included only about 750-900 students while I taught there and served a relatively high-poverty population of students. If anyone had chosen to judge the success of our AP program as Schneider has—focusing on AP test scores, outcomes—that most students over the years scored 2s and 1s would likely paint a picture of failure.

Charts of the data over the years ignore some genuinely important facts about whether of not AP was successful at my high school, including whether or not that failure or success was directly caused by the AP program itself.

First, what the data do not tell you is that we did not gate-keep students as the College Board recommended; we didn’t use PSAT scores in order to weed out only the best and the brightest. In fact, a neighboring high school with  triple our student body size routinely had about the same total number of AP students as I taught.

The policy of our AP program was providing access to high-quality courses for as many students as possible, not test-score outcomes.

Next, since the administration was committed to increasing student access to AP, they were also committed to supporting me as a teacher, manifesting itself in low class sizes (I usually taught two sections of 15 students, or less, per class) and nearly complete teacher autonomy.

Again, if student test scores are all that matter, that my students overwhelmingly scored 2s and 1s (throughout my years teaching AP, a score of 3 was considered “passing” because most colleges awarded college credit for 3s and above) suggested that my students, our program, and I were all failures.

The story, however, is something quite different. Over the years, we received countless messages from our students once they were in college: Our graduates eagerly and without prompting praised the opportunities they were given in high school, recognizing the tremendous base they carried into college because of their experiences in their AP courses.

Again, most of these students scored 2s on the AP exam. Not unusual was a former student contacting me to intervene with their freshman English college professor, who believed the student’s freshman essays were too good to be original.

To this day, my Facebook account is punctuated with the voices of former students echoing that somehow we had been successful in our classes. Let me emphasize that many of these students would have been excluded from AP if our school had used the gate-keeping mechanisms the College Board recommended.

Why were we successful, despite the evidence of the test scores?

• Access to a rich curriculum, student-centered classrooms, workshop environments, low student/teacher ratios.

• Teacher autonomy along with administrative, parent, and student support.

What are the real lessons?

• AP didn’t cause any of our success. [In fact, we took the framework of the AP template, but made it far more effective by meeting the needs of our students without regard for the simplistic outcomes associated with the test scores.]

• Test scores hide genuine academic success.

Ultimately, the College Board and Schneider are making the wrong arguments, in fact, a problem we are also facing with adoption of the CCSS (wrestling over if the standards are “rigorous” or how to implement them or what the tests should look like versus confronting the folly of standards- and test-based schooling).

Instead of reforming any specific program or policy, and instead of focusing on outcomes to judge if a program works or if a reform works, we must begin to seek and value an equitable access to rich educational experiences for all children, as Jones notes:

Interestingly, the very things that we’ve been arguing for decades that our schools desperately need, are the very things that the rich insist on in their schools: more resources, rich curriculum (not just reading and math), experienced teachers (not just grinding through newbies), and small class sizes!…

When it comes to meeting our students’ basic needs, they claim there’s no money. But when it comes to data gathering there’s a blank check. New York City is going to spend $32 million to pay Pearson to develop more tests over the next five years.

Teachers and schools, regardless of the quality of those teachers or the courses students are offered, will never alone overcome the inequity of children’s lives, particularly if we look at the numbers instead of the people involved and especially if we are not patient, expecting some instant evidence of success.

Most of the success I do recognize (along with the many mistakes weaved in among that eventual success) has come into view only many years later. And for  my students who trace something positive to  my classroom, I would caution that they should also look in the mirror and recognize the dozens of other related experiences that create the momentum that leads to success.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.”

This is one of many Thoreau quotes that grew yellow on my classroom walls. While I believed it was a powerful message for my students, often frozen as they were by their own society-imposed rush to be perfect immediately (or prove themselves the failures they feared they were), I am more convinced than ever that Thoreau is speaking to the world of education reform.

It is not ours to do everything, but the something is pretty clear, and that something must include a commitment to creating equitable opportunities for all children, and that equity must be wrapped in kindness and patience.

In time, these students will become adults who remember those opportunities as well as that kindness and patience but not their AP scores or their college GPA.