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:

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. (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

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

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

 

Easter 2017 Reader: Grit, Poetry, Educational Rankings, Poverty

Grit

Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality, Christine Yeh (Education Week)

Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.” However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty….

Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.

Statistics on educational access consistently reveal vast differences in resources in affluent versus poor neighborhoods. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-income school districts tend to spend significantly more money per student than the districts with the highest percentages of marginalized students. Our poorest schools also tend to have large class sizes, unsafe school transportation, damaged and outdated facilities, and high staff turnover. All of these conditions directly contribute to low educational outcomes and underscore the link between access to school resources and improvements in students’ success. Schools that focus on grit shouldn’t ignore structural inequities because they assume that regardless of your race, class, or social context you can still triumph.

Telling children ‘hard work gets you to the top’ is simply a lie, Hashi Mohamed (The Guardian)

What I have learned in this short period of time is that the pervasive narrative of “if you work hard you will get on” is a complete myth. It’s not true and we need stop saying it. This is because “working hard, and doing the right thing” barely gets you to the starting line. Furthermore, it means something completely different depending on to which context you’re applying this particular notion. So much more is required.

I have come to understand that the systems that underpin the top professions in Britain are set up to serve only a certain section of society: they’re readily identifiable by privileged backgrounds, particular schools and accents. To some this may seem obvious, so writing it may be superfluous. But it wasn’t obvious to me growing up, and it isn’t obvious to many others. The unwritten rules are rarely shared and “diversity” and “open recruitment” have tried but made little if any difference.

Those inside the system then naturally recruit in their own image. This then entrenches the lack of any potential for upward mobility and means that the vast majority are excluded.

Check out Neoliberalism: A Concept Every Sociologist Should Understand, Peter Kaufman (Everyday Sociology)

The end result of neoliberal ideology, Monbiot continues, is that we are led to believe in the myth of the self-made person:

“The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

See Also

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

SchoolED Podcast: Paul Thomas on Grit, Slack, and the Effects of Poverty on Learning

UPDATED (Again): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement

Poetry/ National Poetry Month 2017

Perspective | Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means, Sara Holbrook (The Answer Sheet/ Washington Post)

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

See Also

Investigating Poetry Because We Love It (and Our Students)

In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart”

“So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

Educational Rankings

Are South Carolina schools really the worst in the nation?, Cindy Landrum (Greenville Journal)

Furman University education professor Paul Thomas said the education ranking is far less about education than socioeconomics.

“This ranking is a direct reflection of political negligence,” he said. “Our schools don’t legislate. It’s not like our schools are without any fault, but how schools function is a reflection of political leadership. South Carolina is failing our children, not our children are failing school.”

U.S. News & World Report used 11 metrics to measure a state’s education ranking, including college and high school graduation rates and standardized test scores. Three of the six pre-kindergarten-12 categories are test scores (ACT and National Assessment of Educational Progress), while the others are high school graduation rates, pre-K quality, and preschool enrollment. South Carolina ranked high in quality of its public pre-kindergarten program, but ranked low in test scores and college readiness.

“Schools in South Carolina and the U.S. reflect the inequities of communities, the failure of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change,” Thomas said.

At least 60 percent of test scores are correlated with out-of-school factors such as parental education levels, poverty, hunger, mobility, lack of health care, safety, and community resources, he said. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of test scores can be traced to teacher quality.

Thomas said it has been known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning. But instead of addressing the problems, instead grade-by-grade standards are changed and students tested.

“Our states have social and educational pockets of poverty,” Thomas said. “Food and home insecurity directly contribute to low academic output, and once they get into school, we make horrible decisions. High-poverty children are sitting in larger classes with early-career and uncertified teachers. We do the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”

See Also

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Poverty

America’s Shameful Poverty Stats, Sasha Abramsky (The Nation)

But there’s a deeper significance to the numbers: how they compare with the figures from recent decades. The percentage of people in poverty is roughly the same as in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, as well as in 1993, at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush trickle-down economics. A far higher portion of the population lives in poverty than was the case in the mid-1970s, after a decade of investment stemming from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; and far more live in poverty today than did at the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office—years in which the earned-income tax credit was expanded, unemployment was kept to near-historic lows, and poverty rates fell significantly.

That our poverty numbers have risen to such a high level exposes the fact that as a society, we are choosing to ignore the needs of tens of millions of Americans—as we have done for much of the period since the War on Poverty went out of fashion and the harsher politics of Reaganism set in. These ignored Americans include kids like the ones I interviewed in Los Angeles, forced to choose between applying to college or dropping out of school and getting dead-end jobs to support parents who had lost not only their jobs but their homes, too. They include the elderly lady I met outside Dallas, who was too poor to retire but too sick to take the bus to her work at Walmart. Her solution? She paid her neighbors gas money to drive her to a job that paid so little she routinely ate either 88-cent TV dinners or went to bed hungry. They include, too, the residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward I met in 2011, who, six years after Hurricane Katrina, were still living in appalling conditions in a largely obliterated community.

See Also

the world

 

Dear People with Privilege: On Freeing the Pelican

The first men to deny sexism are sexists themselves; the first white people to deny racism are racists themselves.

One of the profound tensions of the U.S. is that the country founded on the ideals of individual liberty—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—was in fact built by sexists and racists. This is no easy or comfortable contradiction.

We have settled into an ends justifying the means narcotic as a people to avoid that contradiction.

The great praise the U.S. does deserve (although not unique to the U.S.) is the concept of pursuit; a great many people have pursued and continue to pursue the elusive equity of our founding principles.

To identify, admit to, and then confront racism or sexism, we must reach to the people with the most power in the country—white men, who believe they have earned that power, their success.

Racism and sexism are not mere abstractions because some people must be complicit in the perpetuation of both.

Even among the victims of racism and sexism, we find people complicit, but the main people responsible for our failures in the pursuit of equity are the ones with the most power, power gained from privilege.

Most of us, then, when confronted with the ugliest truths of racism and sexism immediately tell our stories of struggle: “I cannot have privilege,” we proclaim, “because I have struggled!”

So consider the invisibility of privilege to those with privilege.

You buy a pair of Nike shoes, and if someone asks you if you are for child labor or slave wages for women forced to work in cramped factories as their homes, you are very likely to strongly reject being for those abstractions—while wearing the shoes made in horrifying conditions for women and children workers earning slave wages.

The problem of privilege is that most of us with privilege are complicit through negligence, not through conscious decisions to oppress.

Consequences, however, make those distinctions irrelevant.

As Roxane Gay navigates wonderfully in Peculiar Benefits, many people have contexts within which they have privilege, unearned advantages—even people for whom much of their life is spent as the victim of other people’s privileges.

And white heterosexual men can struggle mightily in life, even as we celebrate the apparent success of a black homosexual woman.

Outliers are some of the most powerful blinders for confronting privilege.

But I believe I can offer here a simple test.

First, to admit to having privilege is not opening yourself to scorn; the fact of having privilege is not justification for condemning anyone.

From there, then, we must move to the key question: What do you do with your privilege(s)? Perpetuate your own needs and desires? Or use your privilege(s) in the service of others who are oppressed, who are victims of other people’s privileges?

Some tests include whether or not you acknowledge your own and systemic privilege (racism and sexism, for example), and then if or not you develop an ability to feel compassion for anyone who is struggling, recognizing that human failure may often be the consequence of systemic forces and not individual flaws.

This last point is important. Racism, for example, persists because as a culture, people in the U.S. have made the default stance about human struggle and failure to be flawed individuals: People who succeed, we assume, worked hard, and people who struggle and fail, we assume, are lazy.

Each of us must come to acknowledge our privilege(s) and proceed with the understanding that systemic inequity is the root cause of individual struggle and failure.

To use your privilege in the service of others [1] even when that act creates risk for you and especially when that act works to dismantle the privilege that allows you to serve others.

A picture (or in this case, a video [2]) is worth a 1000 words, so let me end by suggesting, this is what it looks like to acknowledge your privilege, to identify those who suffer inequity, and then to act in the service of that other:


[1] To serve others, as well, must avoid paternalism. It is not substituting arrogance for your privilege in order to save those who are lesser than you; it is seeking out anyone without your privileges and then asking, How may I help you?

[2] Too often, when confronted with systemic inequity (racism, sexism, etc., represented by the fishing line on the pelican’s beak), people either refuse to acknowledge the fishing line, blame the pelican for being in the situation that caused the line tangle, or argue, “I didn’t put the fishing line around the beak.” Yet, we are complicit if we fish (even carefully), eat fish, or if we do nothing while aware of the dangers of fishing for pelicans and other animals—even if we believe we are compassionate to or hold no prejudice against pelicans.

See Also

Montclair SocioBlog: The Winds of Privilege

Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

Not What, But Who: Remaining Grounded as a Teacher of Students

Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven”

The field experience students complete as part of my foundations of education course has this semester blended well with their reading Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

As we have discussed both during class sessions, students have been drawn to witnessing and reading as well as thinking about how teachers view and respond to their students.

Although these students have virtually no background in formal education, they have been very perceptive about the inordinate, and distracting, pressures on teachers to cover the curriculum (standards) and prepare students for testing—notably while observing and tutoring at a local majority-minority elementary school.

High student/teacher ratios have also been identified as making good classroom practice nearly impossible.

Running through our discussions has been a concern about how teachers treat students (often more harshly than my students anticipated or endorsed) and about the pervasive deficit perspective throughout the school.

Observing and tutoring in special needs classes and among Latinx students needing to acquire English have intensified how my students have responded to their field placement and their recognition of the myriad factors that impact negatively formal education.

Often unspoken, but what teachers and students share in far too many schools is a “no excuses” imperative that demands teachers perform well (even miraculously) despite being placed in circumstances that work against their efforts and that demands students somehow leave the pressures and inequities of their lives in order to excel at academics being imposed on them.

Teresa Watanabe’s Can a child who starts kindergarten with few reading or math skills catch up? is a snapshot of what my students have witnessed and what Emdin’s work challenges.

Responding to that article, Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has identified the problem that my students have observed:

But there is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning, and no evidence showing that the Common Core standards are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards….

Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car and spell words during family outings in order to “master” 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind.  Children who develop a love of reading will master thousands of words, without suffering.

Although political leaders and the public often view the authoritarian classroom where teachers are charged with keeping order and demanding that students learn standards and content about which they have no choice or input as the solution, it is now far past time to recognize that this is the problem with formal schooling.

Of course, what we teach is important at every level of education, and that what is becoming even more important for our democracy as we are confronted with a new post-truth media and politics.

That what needs to be the sort of truth that empowers a free people.

That what also needs to include a clear focus on the civility of learning and wrestling with ideas since our post-truth media and politics are increasing and justifying the demanding and nasty tone that is already a problem in many schools.

However, the what must remain secondary to the who—who we teach is what makes teaching an essential calling grounded in the dignity of both teachers and their students.

And the what can never be well taught or learned unless we attend to the conditions of teaching/learning and living among our teachers and students.

The authoritarian classroom, deficit thinking, “no excuses” ideologies and practices—these are corrosive elements for teaching, learning, and democracy as well as liberty.

The very long era of standardized testing and the more recent and relatively shorter era of accountability and standards have inflicted immeasurable harm on teachers and students.

And even as educator autonomy and professionalism become daily further eroded, we are morally obligated to call for and remain grounded in our role as teachers of students.

The who of teaching and learning must always come before the what.