Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.


The Outlier Fallacy: Keeping Our Accusatory Gaze on Individuals, and Not Systemic Inequity

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a celebrity—both of which speak to his exceptional talents, especially in the context of being a black man in the U.S.

In many ways, Tyson is the anti-Sheldon (the fictional nerd genius of The Big Bang Theory), and his celebrity as a scientist serves as a powerful model against corrosive racist stereotypes.

I am but a redneck with a doctorate (EdD) that most in the hard sciences, like Tyson, would brush aside, and my scholarship and public work as a social scientist also land me squarely well below the credibility bar against Tyson’s stature as a hard scientist and celebrity.

None the less, I must offer a friendly rebuttal to Tyson on a recent Tweet:

To which I replied:

Despite his status as an astrophysicist, his wealth of knowledge as a scientist, Tyson’s celebrity, I fear (much as is the case with Oprah), has clouded his better sensibilities.

The celebrity class in the U.S. often uses that celebrity to hold forth well beyond their areas of expertise (see as the king of this practice, Bill Gates). And Tyson very well could have good intentions here, and I concede he may not deserve being held liable for the codes of his Tweet (How many read “broken childhoods” as code for “living in poverty” and/or “single-black-parent home”?)

Tyson’s public is rife with those who cling to successful blacks who reinforce their racism: OJ Simpson, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Charles Barkley, to name a few.

And so Tyson is holding forth as a Great American Winner, and winners often believe that the primary cause of their success is in their own character and effort; winners, in other words, are apt not to consider the role of the rules in their winning—notably rarely considering that the rules could be unfairly tilted in their favor.

So there are two fundamental flaws in Tyson’s Tweet: First is the implication that in the U.S. we are not already focusing on “those who succeed in spite”; and second, “those who succeed in spite” are outliers, and thus, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences more problematic than the potential source of understanding human behavior.

Tyson’s suggestion is trapped within the rugged individualism/bootstrap myths of the U.S. and then speaks to the same—but coming from Tyson, his argument feeds some nasty racial and racist narratives as well (If only we could inculcate in all blacks the character and effort that the black winners [outliers] have…).

People who succeed have character traits that trump people who fail—goes the narrative. And thus, all we need to do is fix those people who do not succeed.

This outlier fallacy fails as science, but it also keeps the accusatory gaze on individuals. While Tyson suggests we focus on winners instead of losers, either option is flawed in that it allows systemic forces to be ignored even though systemic forces (not individual qualities) are often the primary cause of outcomes.

Let’s recalibrate Tyson’s Tweet just a bit to see the problem: Why don’t we study black men who do not find themselves in the criminal justice system instead of studying black men who are incarcerated to understand criminalization?

This proposal, of course, puts the gaze entirely on black men, and fails to recognize the first level problem—the criminal justice and policing systems in the U.S. are significantly inequitable for black Americans.

If our goal is equity and social justice for people trapped in poverty and for so-called racial minorities in the U.S., as well as seeking ways to support children better who are living broken childhoods, Tyson’s musing ignores how we already are failing both goals and promotes an outlier fallacy driven by the white gaze, something fostered among the winners who cannot allow themselves to question the rules that created their winning.

Especially in this time of Trump, seeking equity and justice cannot afford a celebrity class blinded by its celebrity. “Those who succeed” and “those who don’t succeed” are not the sources of where our gaze should be; those are outcomes driven by a game that is rigged.

Let’s reconsider the rules of that game and not the participants, whether they succeed or not.

Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.


Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.

For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

Rejecting Growth Mindset and Grit at Three Levels

As the academic year began at my university, I was confronted with how the very worst of K-12 public education reform continues to creep upward, engulfing higher education.

In this case, growth mindset was central to the faculty keynote address, prompting me to resist an outburst in front of my colleagues. I did, however, weigh in on social media, including Facebook—where a few faculty were intrigued and reached out by email.

Last week, then, we held a faculty discussion on growth mindset, and of the three panelist, I was the only one calling for at least a skeptical view if not an outright rejection of the concept (along with grit, which was mentioned in the keynote but not central to the presentation).

For simplicity and clarity, I want to outline here briefly (since I have written extensively about both growth mindset and grit; see the Categories here on the blog) why I call for skepticism and even rejecting the practices associated with the terms.

At the first level, I question the ideological motivation for doing research to find the source of success and failure within individuals—assuming that individual character and behaviors are primarily or solely the source of both success and failure.

As a colleague noted during comments after the keynote, this is a “very American” way of thinking; and I would add, a flawed view of the relationship between human behavior and social forces.

Here, I recommend Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and argue that social forces are primary to human behaviors. I also call into question the rush to characterize what is success and failure—since a tremendous amount of both outcomes are more strongly correlated to a person’s environment of birth than any accomplishments by the person.

At the second level, I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level—both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).

Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.

Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.

The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character—ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.

K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.

All three levels, then, are born in, protected by, and prone to perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Finally, stepping back from these levels, I also remain skeptical of growth mindset and grit because they are very difficult to disentangle from deficit perspectives of students and from monolithic, thus reductive, views of identifiable groups by race, class, gender, or educational outcomes.

Instead I endorsed what Paul Gorski argues about equity literacy principles:

Equity literate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class communities, reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.


Please Support #FixInjusticeNotKids

Paul Gorski, currently preparing a revised edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, has initiated #FixInjusticeNotKids on social media, a hashtag that captures perfectly the primary fracture between mainstream education reformers and social justice education reformers.

As some examples, here are Tweets of mine addressing this powerful message:

Many elements of mainstream reform embrace a deficit view of children and students, specifically black and brown students as well as students living in poverty. This ideology blames the victims of social inequity, racism, classism, and sexism; it creates a laser focus on the individual and blinds us to systemic injustice.

Support #FixInjusticeNotKids in word and action to seek ways to reject deficit ideology and to end inequity and injustice so that the potential of all children can be achieved among a people who genuinely believe all children matter,

Hiding Behind Rhetoric in the Absence of Evidence

Having been extensively cited in recent news articles on education, I have received the typical responses, both by email and an Op-Ed (High expectations lead to achievement).

What is notable about these disgruntled responses can be seen directly in the headline above—a dependence on soaring and idealistic rhetoric to mask a complete failure to either discount my evidence or to provide any credible evidence for the counter arguments.

A recent email argued that I was causing more harm than good for emphasizing the impact of racism on literacy education and achievement by students; the rebuttal, however, was peppered with “I believe” and not a single effort to rebut the dozens of research studies I provided on both grade retention and racism/sexism.

While I pressed that point in a few replies, the offended person only ever produced as some sort of evidence a TED Talk, an unintended confession that his world-view depends on whiz-bang showmanship and seeing in any outlier example a confirmation of his biases—what Maia Szalavitz identifies as “’fundamental attribution error’. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.”

The emails were almost entirely rhetorical, like a TED Talk, and then divorced from any sort of empirical evidence.

The Op-Ed reflects in a more public way this same disturbing pattern. William W. Brown, founder and chairman of the board of Legacy Early College, holds forth in defense of the charter school’s “no excuses” approach to educating poor and mostly black/brown students, an ideology and set of policies that I have rejected for many years as inherently racist and classist.

While Brown quotes a few of my comments from a news article and then suggests he aims to rebut them, he merely slips each time into restating the ideology of the charter school, the rhetoric of high expectations.

Early in the commentary, Brown notes: “However, Thomas does not acknowledge that a college education is the single most reliable way to lessen the effect of systemic racism and end poverty.”

Here is the exact strategy employed by Arne Duncan throughout his tenure as Secretary of Education: make a grand rhetorical claim that most people in the U.S. believe (education is the “great equalizer”), and then offer no evidence it is true while hoping no one calls you on it.

The truth is hard to swallow, however, because education can be shown through ample evidence to have very little impact on erasing inequity driven by racism and sexism. For just a few of many examples, please consider the following:

Whites with only high school completion earn more than Blacks/Hispanics having completed 2 years of college. (Bruenig, 24 October 2014)

White men with no high school diploma have the same employment opportunities as black men with some college completion. (Closing the Race Gap)

Race and gender remain powerful sources of inequity despite educational attainment. (Access to good jobs)

Brown also cites this: “He goes on to say, ‘Successful people in the United States tend to be white and come from privilege and they’re not necessarily working harder than anybody else but they have incredible advantages.'”

And then makes no effort to address why he believes my comment is “problematic.” Perhaps he could consider the following:


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

One other tactic I experience is the subtle and not-so-subtle effort by the “no excuses” crowd to turn charges of racism toward those of us calling out the racism of “no excuses” practices: “If you believe the zip code where you were born should determine your educational outcome, you basically believe that some people aren’t built for success, which is — to put it bluntly — racist.”

Two aspects of this strategy are important to highlight. First, Brown here and others must misrepresent my claims (I have never and would never embrace or suggest that we ask less of any child or that some group of people have less ability than others because of inherent deficiencies; in fact, my scholarship and public work directly reject deficit ideologies).

Second, this rhetorical slight of hand is designed to point anywhere other than the person making the claim.

This second part of the move is important for charter advocates and the “no excuses” crowd because evidence is not on their side.

The Legacy Charter school endorsed by Brown has three consecutive years of “below average” state report cards (2012-2014, the most recent since report card assessments have been suspended in SC until this coming fall).

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • 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.

The “high expectations” movement, again mostly aimed at black/brown and poor children, has some serious flaws because the rhetoric is discredited by the evidence.

In short, education is not the “great equalizer” in the U.S. And committing to “high expectations” for children living inequitable and overburdened lives suggests their struggles are mostly their fault because they simply are not working hard enough.

That is a calloused and racist/classist lie.

As I detailed above, success in the U.S. is mostly about advantages, not working hard.

Brown concludes with a flurry of rhetoric: “You could burn the world down as it is because it’s too hard to fix systemic injustices, or you could build it up to the sky because you know in your heart that’s where we belong. Keep your matches. I’m grabbing a hammer and a ladder.”

What should disturb us is how easily the winners (even those claiming good intentions) in the U.S. are willing to throw up their hands when challenged to address systemic racism, classism, and sexism.

In fact, this admission is awash in excuses and absent the exact resilience needed to address inequity that these adults demand of children, who must somehow set aside their lives each day they walk through the doors of school and behave in ways the adults refuse to do.

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research



NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US