God Bless You, Jacqueline Woodson

Moving to higher education from high school teaching has afforded me the annual joy of a national conference each November. This year’s conference is in St. Louis, MO, and I spent my Saturday morning listening to writer Jacqueline Woodson.

When an early-career teacher and I were making plans for the conference, she noted Woodson would be talking, and I pointed out that Woodson was about my age—surprising my former student.

Woodson herself made a passing comment about looking much younger than her age, being born in 1963 just two years younger than I.

In most ways that we identify people, Woodson and I are unalike—race and gender the most obvious.

Woodson’s talk was engaging, beautiful as expected of a writer, but also equal parts kind and confrontational. She weaved a talk with stories of who she is as well as reading from her works.

Literature and writing, I share with Woodson, but we also have some geography in common—Woodson having lived for a while in Greenville, SC, where I now teach and only a thirty-minute drive from my home town.

While I am deeply and permanently Southern, Woodson stressed that she is a New Yorker, joking about how fast she talks now.

However, Woodson and I shared formative years, highlighted by her cultural references in her works that she noted young readers should be researching to understand the context of her references.

As Woodson read from Black Girl Dreaming, I was transported back to my youth. Woodson offers in “music”:

funk 1


A skinny and deeply insecure white kid, I was enamored with The Ohio Players, and I can recall vividly being mesmerized by the word “funk” because it sounded so close to profanity and clearly was a powerful word that carries elements of sex and cool that were way beyond my realm of awareness, my lived experiences as a nerdy white boy.

During this period of my life, Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music, White Boy” was a Top 40 hit, and I listened to raucous and theatrical groups such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament-Funkadelic, fronted by flamboyant personalities like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.

As I listened to Woodson quilting her talk with her published writing, I felt myself letting down my usual guard against all that defines me for other people; I felt community with her as well as the people laughing and nodding in the audience.

Unlike most of life these days in the U.S., that room felt safe and filled with peace—even as we were nested in St. Louis, a city now infamous for Ferguson and Michael Brown, the pervasive danger in the U.S. for those merely trying to live while being black.

Who are we? and What defines us? always sit just below the surface of my conscious self, a self ensconced in my whiteness, privilege, and being a man.

The first morning at the conference, as I was leaving a small coffee and breakfast shop, a woman asked where all the people outside were going. As I answered her, she interrupted me with “You are Southern”—an intense declaration that made me half expect her to back away as if redneck is contagious.

I thought about this encounter when Woodson took questions from students, one of which asked her if she were afraid of moving back to the South.

She replied that she wouldn’t move back South but “it ain’t cause I’m scared”—although, she added, she would be concerned for the safety of her family.

Like me, Woodson is projecting her fear around those she loves; unlike me, Woodson, simply due to all the ways she is unlike me, is aware that she does have much to fear, all that I am shielded from by my privileges.

Woodson’s talk catapulted me back to my teen years and the transformational power of “funk”—the word and the music—in my tentative white boy life.

As an aging (old?) white man, I am now more acutely aware of the alternative meaning of “funk”—to be in a funk, to be weighed down by the world, our fears, our fears in the name of the ones we love.

Joy and that funk reside together in my heart and bones as I think of my granddaughter—wild-haired, just a girl-child, innocent and fragile, bi-racial—and the delicate threads of my life linking me to all that is beautiful in this life despite all that is horrible.

“You have a right to be here fabulously,” Woodson told us at the beginning of her talk.

Yes we do, and I want so badly to hope that this is true.

God bless you, Jacqueline Woodson.



The Tyranny of Canonical Texts

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

As a sophomore in high school, I was a nerdy good student who had succeeded in schooling by transferring his mama’s-boy skills into teacher-pleasing dexterity. I was, however, enamored with math and science and just tolerated English and history.

My sophomore and junior years with the same English teacher, Lynn Harrill, were wonderful because of Lynn—not English, which to me was a mind-numbing series of vocabulary tests and a lot of reading I couldn’t have cared less about.

English in junior high had been torture, years and years of grammar book exercises and sentence diagramming.

Once while my tenth-grade peers were suffering through a week-long exploration of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I was home on the couch, sick. That unit on Tale culminated in a long multiple-choice test, which my classmates scored very low on.

When I returned to class, I had never read that book—started it, of course being a good student, but found it insufferable (I still loath Dickens, much as I do Shakespeare, Austen, and a whole host of canonical authors). Before taking a make-up exam, I chose the Cliff’s Notes route, and scored a sweet 96 on the test—best by far in the class.

Over the next four or so years, a weird thing happened: I graduated high school planning to be a physics major, was enlisted by an English professor to tutor a survey course my first year of college, and then became an English education major at the beginning of my junior year—along the way discovering I was a writer and someone who loves literature as much or more than any other person I have ever met.


When my college students enter my office for the first time, they invariably pause at this view of my bookshelf, asking, “Have you read all these books?”

I also love English majors; they say things like “canonical” and “epistolary” without any hint that this is not the way humans communicate.

But I have to confront that the biggest obstacle to my life of words was English courses throughout my junior and senior high school years, and a key element of that negative influence was being assigned canonical texts, most of which I found then and continue to find to be dreadful reading.

Concurrent with those cloying experiences with texts, I was collecting and reading thousands of comic books (I had about 7000 Marvel comics when I graduated high school) as well as science fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke and others.

As I have examined before, my very serious experiences with William Faulkner in high school set me up to be embarrassed when I rediscovered Faulkner in upper-level college English courses.

While teaching high school English for 18 years and then moving to teacher education for 16 years-and-counting now (primarily working with future teachers of English), I remain powerfully aware of the me who was alienated from the things I would come to love—the things that mostly define who I am as a human—by the very environment that should have been the place I discovered what I love.

That alienation I call the tyranny of the canonical text, and it hurts me to watch as many English teachers continue to be agents of that tyranny or co-victims of that tyranny with their students.

As chair of the English department while teaching high school, I worked for years to end or at least modify the required novel and play lists we used in our department. Those efforts were met with a great deal of resistance from my colleagues.

My argument then (and now) was grounded in the fact that between me and the most ardent advocate for canonical texts and required reading lists, we had vastly different reading backgrounds, and none the less were both highly literate, well-read people.

I have read every work by Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others—but only  a few pages of many of the books canon advocates would argue are essential. I have written and edited volumes on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin.

My literary life is an example of literacy triumphing over the tyranny of canonical texts. However, I wonder why anyone should have to fight through that tyranny to discover the joy and value of the written word.

Yes, I understand and appreciate the allure of teaching a valued text; I, too, have works that I love to teach, several of which were pure tyranny for my students.

Yes, I understand that reasonable people can agree that some works of literature are, in fact, superior to others; I, too, cringe at the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sorts of popular novels.

And, yes, I recognize that teaching English includes both an obligation to the discipline (composition and literature) and our students.

Ultimately, I have committed in my career to begin with (and to seek never to fail) my obligations to students and their literacy (both the so-called practical aspects of that literacy and the much more important role literacy plays in any person’s full humanity, agency, and joy for living)—some times necessarily sacrificing the finer points of covering canonical texts and authors.

An important element in that commitment is coming to see that when any student balks at a text, I first challenge the text selection, and resist assuming some problem lies in the student.

My deeply insecure self in junior and high school, mortified in the full body brace I wore for scoliosis, would have appreciated greatly someone offering me that opportunity then; instead, my life in literacy came later and only because I somehow fought through the tyranny of canonical texts.

Adventures in Classroom Discussions: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”

My career as an educator now includes about equal parts but different roles as first a high school English teacher, for nearly two decades, and now a college professor of education and composition/first-year writing, approaching two decades quickly.

My high school students were like family and friends, young people who were growing up in my hometown; therefore, my classes were energetic with lots of discussion—often rambling—and plenty of laughter. Those conversations carried over into non-class times of the day, after school, and during extracurricular activities, such as the years I was a coach.

When I switched to higher education, however, I encountered very silent classes—students who still tend to request that I talk most of the class because, as they say, they enjoy hearing someone knowledgable discuss the topics of the courses. This silence bothered me so early on I conducted several years of questionnaires asking students about why they tended not to talk in class.

Students openly confessed two reasons: (1) fear of being wrong in front of the professor, and thus hurting their status (re: grades), and (2) not wanting to “give away” the work they had done to peers in the class who had not prepared (a disturbing sort of capitalistic view of knowledge rejected by Paulo Freire as the “banking concept”).

As a result of this change in student behavior from high school to college teaching, I have had to work much more diligently and think much more deeply about classroom discussions in this last half of my career so far. Here I want to offer some guiding principles I have developed for classroom discussions and place them against one of my favorite lessons, using “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros—a story set in the classroom so it fits well in all the courses I now teach.

First, here are some guiding principles that I continue to wrestle with as I implement them to encourage student engagement and improve the effectiveness of classroom discussions:

  • Create opportunities for students to offer artifacts of being fully engaged in a class lesson and discussion that expand beyond only speaking aloud in class: Allow students to share in small groups before whole group discussions, provide students handouts that allow them to annotate on text to show engagement, and establish discussion journals that provide students spaces to write comments and responses that they would prefer not to say aloud. Traditional approaches to classroom discussion can be distinctly unfair to students who are less assertive or naturally vocal—students who are introverted, student still navigating their understanding and not ready to assert any claims.
  • Anticipate and then “deprogram” students from a common dynamic they have experienced with teacher-centered class discussions: When students reply correctly, teachers confirm (often interrupting the student) and move on; when students are off-base, teachers redirect, ask another question, etc. Therefore, students learn to use the teacher as the only/primary locus of authority, and (worse of all) are trained not to elaborate through providing evidence and explanation (two academic moves far more important than having the “right” answer). All student responses should be prompted to support and elaborate so that students (not the teacher) can tease out the validity of the response. If students need basic information, that should not be the goal of class discussions, but provided as a foundation before a discussion occurs.
  • Create a classroom environment around open-ended questions instead of “guess what the teacher wants you to say”: Who is the most interesting character in this story (and why)? v. Who is the protagonist in this story? Or, what is the best (most effective) sentence in this story for you (and why)? v. What are some metaphors and similes in this story? Open-ended questions are not, however, allowing students to say anything they please, but a way to avoid just filling in the blanks and asking students to provide evidence and elaborate.
  • Arrange the class so that students are looking at each other (not the teacher), and then foster a collaborative discussion in which students respond to each other and work through “confirming” as a class (a community) instead of relying on the teacher to confirm or reject. One way to move toward that is after a student replies, ask another student to restate what the first student said, and then to either defend it or help reframe it. This helps students see that knowledge is communal and constructed, not some divine pronouncement.
  • And a pet-peeve caveat: Do not get trapped in the misguided Bloom’s Taxonomy approach to questions; Bloom never intended for the taxonomy to be used as a linear/sequential guide to how we teach (it was designed for assessment). The six elements are valuable if we see them as holistic and interrelated aspects of how we learn and interrogate the world: Remembering, understanding, and analyzing contribute to evaluating and synthesizing while applying.

As I mentioned above, “Eleven” is often a powerful text for a class discussion—one that can be framed around effective writing and craft; around thinking about teaching, learning, teachers, and students; around understanding family and peer dynamics; or around identifying and confronting cultural tensions.

One key to vibrant class discussions is to be sure students are primed and not cold on the elements of the discussion. Therefore, I give students some guiding activities for them to complete as I read “Eleven” aloud to the class.

Some of those are:

  • Mark key sentences or passages that stand out to you because they are well written, interesting, problematic, or confusing. After the story is completed, pick the one you would most like to share.
  • Identify your mood in the margin of the story as I read aloud, noting when your mood shifts. Mark key words or sections that create the shift.
  • Pick the best single word in the story.

These activities while I read aloud help create something for students to say during a discussion. Next, I ask students to form small groups (I prefer three to a group) and to share one item with the group from the actions above.

I use that time to walk around and listen to the small group discussions and to look at the annotated stories on their desks. This allows me to confirm engagement so when we go to a whole-class discussion, the students who remain silent still can be identified as engaged.

Students can also be prompted to annotate the text further while discussing or to make entries in a class discussion journal they maintain throughout the course—even asking for those copies to be turned in for informal assessment.

Once we begin whole-class discussion, I implement the above principals by asking them to turn desks so they are facing inward and each other. I begin with asking for a volunteer to share any of the ideas prompted by the during-reading activities.

Once a student shares, I usually ask, “Can you show us where that is in the story? And can you elaborate on that for us?” Next, I typically ask another student to react to the first share—confirm, reframe, or build on the point made.

Here, I want to emphasize that this strategy and text are always successful in the context of my instructional goal: I am not trying to make students expert on Cisneros, this story, or literary terms/analysis, but I am helping students develop a set of important academic moves that translate into their writing—making credible claims and then providing valid evidence for the claims before elaborating on the importance of those claims to a wider purpose.

In other words, the discussion is student-centered, not allowing students just to say whatever they want, and grounded in the content in a way that uses content as a means and not the ends of the discussion.

For example, students often identify this passage as key: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

The important aspect of the discussion, however, is not that they identify the passage I have decided is key, but that they are able to explain in a detailed way what makes the passage key.

Students often share their own personal experiences similar to Rachel’s with her math teacher—feelings of anger and being insignificant. And from that we explore student/teacher dynamics and the often oppressive nature of schooling.

While I don’t want to oversimplify, vibrant class discussions are rarely about identifying and acquiring content knowledge, but are best when designed to foster powerful student behaviors that contribute to their development as critical thinkers, engaged listeners, and responsive speakers.

For this discussion as blog post, that key passage—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—can serve as an overarching guiding principle for orchestrating class discussions since it warns us about the failures of class discussions being more about students guessing what the teacher wants (and thus the teacher is the primary or sole arbiter of right and wrong) than about fostering students as critical and engaged thinkers.

More Delusional, White People or Charter Advocates?

Since I often share satirical articles from McSweeney’s and The Onion, and some regularly respond oblivious to the satire, I try to buffer my own knee-jerk reaction to headlines; and thus, at first, I suspected this to be yet another scathing parody: Majority Of White Americans Say They Believe Whites Face Discrimination.

Alas, however, this is serious journalism from NPR about an apparently credible poll— leaving me to consider how delusional white people truly are in the U.S.

White people’s beliefs about whites being discriminated against disappear like tears in the rain when placed against the enormous evidence that whites, in fact, benefit from tremendous benefits for that whiteness in the U.S.

Let’s just catalogue a few significant contradictions in these white beliefs.

First, whites are likely strongly swayed by the mainstream media’s obsession with black-on-black crime, which sits beside the failure of mainstream media to cover with the same intensity white-on-white crime and this one basic fact: Crime in the U.S. is mostly within race and black-on-black crime rates (94%) are nearly statistically equal to white-on-white crime rates (86%):

Next, whites reap huge economic benefits compared to black and brown people, even when comparing by race and level of education:

Additionally, whites fair much better than blacks in the judicial system, even when comparing among the same behaviors and despite the claimed advantages of more education:

And possibly most damning of all, the positive impact of affirmative action—the bane of whites—has mostly fallen to white women:

While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action in the subsequent years, data and studies suggest women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately. According to one study, in 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action.

Another study shows that women made greater gains in employment at companies that do business with the federal government, which are therefore subject to federal affirmative-action requirements, than in other companies — with female employment rising 15.2% at federal contractors but only 2.2% elsewhere. And the women working for federal-contractor companies also held higher positions and were paid better.

Even in the private sector, the advancements of white women eclipse those of people of color. After IBM established its own affirmative-action program, the numbers of women in management positions more than tripled in less than 10 years. Data from subsequent years show that the number of executives of color at IBM also grew, but not nearly at the same rate.

Racism, willful ignorance, delusion—these are our only explanations for whites holding beliefs dramatically contradicted by an abundance of evidence that in the U.S. white privilege is powerful and the oppression of blacks is pervasive even when blacks attain more education.

One case that rivals white delusion is charter school delusion.

When I published an Op-Ed countering two local news stories on SAT scores—both of which misled readers by ranking schools and suggesting charter schools are somehow superior to traditional public schools—the predictable response appeared, from the state’s superintendent of charter schools no less:

Three levels of delusion in one Tweet.

First, my university is test-optional

We believe that your potential for success cannot be determined solely by standardized test scores. As a result, our admission process is test optional, meaning you are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores.

—as are a growing number of colleges and universities. And thus, the “gotcha” aspect of this Tweet falls flat due to a complete failure to look for the evidence.

Next, high-stakes testing—which remains biased by race, social class, and gender—does in fact cause inequity since these tests often are gatekeepers for scholarships and admissions.

And finally, the greatest delusion of all among charter advocates is pure ideology: “Our expectations of kids cause inequity.”

Simply examine the SAT scores along with the Poverty Index (PI) in the chart below (traditional schools, no highlight, and charter schools, highlighted):

SAT comp w charter HL

Both traditional and charter schools fall along a predictable pattern of SAT scores correlating strongly to PI, and thus, charter advocates have a real evidence problem with claims that SAT scores are the result, mostly or only, of expectations.

If there is an expectations problem in the charter school movement, it is that we must have higher expectations for honesty and awareness of evidence among charter school advocates, administrators, and teachers.

Delusion that denies white privilege or misrepresents educational policy is harmful on many levels since it detracts from real problems—such as the cancers that are racism and inequity as well as the tremendous failures of universal public education in the U.S.

In my first-year writing seminar, my constant refrain is urging young people to step back from what they believe is true, to be skeptical of those quick and easy beliefs, and to seek credible and compelling evidence that either confirms or corrects those beliefs.

Just saying something, I warn, doesn’t make it true.

White people and charter advocates, it seems, could use a refresher course in the foundations of composition.


24 October 2017 Reader: Edu Reform, Edu Equity, Technology

Memory Machines and Collective Memory: How We Remember the History of the Future of Technological Change, Audrey Watters

There are powerful narratives being told about the future, insisting we are at a moment of extraordinary technological change. That change, according to these tales, is happening faster than ever before. It is creating an unprecedented explosion in the production of information. New information technologies — so we’re told — must therefore change how we learn: change what we need to know, how we know, how we create knowledge. Because of the pace of change and the scale of change and the locus of change — again, so we’re told — our institutions, our public institutions, can no longer keep up. These institutions will soon be outmoded, irrelevant. So we’re told.

These are powerful narratives, as I said, but they are not necessarily true. And even if they are partially true, we are not required to respond the way those in power or in the technology industry would like us to.

Teacher diversity gaps and their evolution under Trump, Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero

The beginning of a new school year often prompts renewed interest in the diversity of the public teacher workforce, and this year is no different. Minority teachers count for less than 20 percent of all public school teachers, while minority students account for roughly half of all students. And, troublingly, this trend is not likely to reverse anytime soon, based on our report on the topic last year.

There are myriad factors that appear to contribute to the systemic underrepresentation of minority teachers, as well as a variety of proposed solutions to reduce these gaps. Experimenting with these types of policies should be worth it, as the weight of research evidence shows that disadvantaged students stand to benefit most from a more diverse workforce.

7 findings that illustrate racial disparities in education, Liz Sablich

[W]e’ve put together a list of seven findings about racial disparities in education that scholars and contributors at the Brookings Institution have highlighted over the past year.

NEPC Review: Lights Off: Practice and Impact of Closing Low-Performing Schools (CREDO, August 2017), Matthew Gaertner and Ben Kirshner

This report provides an extensive analysis based on the most comprehensive dataset ever assembled for school closure research, including 1,522 low-performing schools that were closed across 26 states between 2006 and 2013. The report finds that even when holding constant academic performance, schools were more likely to be closed if they enrolled higher proportions of minority and low-income students. It also finds test score declines, relative to the comparison group, for two groups of students displaced by closures: those who transferred to schools with a prior record of relatively lower test-score performance and those who transferred to schools with equivalent past test-score performance. The slightly less than half of students who transferred to higher performing schools showed academic improvement relative to their matched peers. In general, although the reviewers found this to be a careful and rigorous study, they see a few missed opportunities. First, the report’s focus on some tenuous analyses (involving pre-closure transfers) obscures its most important findings – disproportionality in school closures and inadequate numbers of higher quality receiving schools, leading to performance declines for most. Second, the reviewers are concerned about statistical modeling choices and matching challenges that may threaten the validity of subgroup analyses (charter school students). Finally, the reviewers would have liked to see the report acknowledge the inescapable moral dimensions of school closure: The communities most likely to be negatively affected are unlikely to have participated in closure decisions.

Neglecting Democracy in Education Policy: A-F School Report Card Accountability Systems, Kevin Murray & Kenneth R. Howe

Sixteen states have adopted school report card accountability systems that assign A-F letter grades to schools. Other states are now engaged in deliberation about whether they, too, should adopt such systems. This paper examines A-F accountability systems with respect to three kinds of validity. First, it examines whether or not these accountability systems are valid as a measure, that is, do these systems validly measure school quality? Second, it examines whether or not they are valid as a policy instrument. or, how far do A-F accountability systems fulfill the stated aims of their proponents—empowering parents, providing “simple” and “common sense” measures of educational quality, and so on? Finally, it examines whether or not A-F systems are valid as a democratic framework:, how well do these systems align with the broader goals of educating students for democratic citizenship and of incorporating parents and community members in democratic deliberation about policies for their public schools? The paper concludes that A-F accountability systems are invalid along each of these lines, and provides recommendations for democratically developing and implementing criteria for school assessment.

New SAT, but Same Old Problems

New SAT, but Same Old Problems (The Greenville News)

P.L. Thomas, professor of Education, Furman University

While South Carolina has joined several states in rejecting Common Core for public school standards and testing, one powerful legacy remains, the revised SAT.

An original architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, now heads the College Board and has championed the new SAT, partly as more aligned with the Common Core.

Paul Hyde’s recent coverage of Greenville high schools’ scores on the revised test as well as a piece on charter schools and the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities offers a prime opportunity to address a new test but the same old problems.

Many advocating the new SAT have suggested that changing the test could address the large and persistent score gaps along race, social class, and gender lines.

However, reporting in Education Week, Catherine Gewertz reveals: “The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.”

For Greenville county as we consider the newest data and our urge to rank high schools by average SAT scores, we must once again confront some important facts that simple ranking tends to mask:

  • SAT average scores should never be used to rank schools, districts, or states in terms of academic quality; this caution, in fact, comes from the College Board itself.
  • SAT scores remain most strongly correlated with parental income, parental levels of education, gender (average male scores are higher than female scores), race, and access to courses.
  • SAT scores are designed solely to be predictive for college success (not to measure academic quality of any school or state); however, high school GPA has long been a better predictor than the test.

Therefore, we should not rush to interpret rankings of Greenville county schools by SAT scores that correlate primarily with the poverty index (PI) of each school as well as a careful analysis of which students in each school take the test.

For example, praising Riverside (PI 21.46) along with Greenville Tech Charter (PI 25.50), Greer Middle College Charter (PI 18.83), Brashier Middle College Charter (PI 16.55), and SCGSAH (PI 14.59) without acknowledging that high SAT scores are mostly a reflection of incredibly low poverty rates is a misleading suggestion of achievement being linked to school quality.

Not ranking and judging our schools by SAT data, however, is not enough. Instead we need to end entirely our toxic relationship with high-stakes testing because that process remains deeply inequitable.

Too many students are spending far too much time in and out of school mired in test-prep and test taking. In that context, we take the test scores far too seriously, typically misinterpreting them.

High-stakes test scores are mostly markers for race, social class, and gender; and are in only small ways reflections of achievement. Most standardized test data are 60% or more correlated with factors outside the schools, teachers, and students.

Test-prep and test taking are detracting from time better spent addressing the inequity of access most students suffer in terms of high-quality teachers and challenging courses. In SC and across the U.S., impoverished students, black and brown students, and English language learners are cheated with larger class sizes, inexperienced and uncertified teachers, and remedial (test-prep) courses.

By identifying the top high schools and bottom high schools according to average SAT scores, we are masking that all schools in the county tend to house social and community differences embodied by the students that attend those schools.

This does not mean we do not need education reform; but it does mean we need to reform our approaches to reform. Throughout the state, we need the political will to address crippling social issues related to food insecurity, stable work and housing, and healthcare, but we also need the political will to stop changing standards and tests every few years and, instead, confront directly the inequities of our schools (such as tracking and teacher assignments) that mirror the inequities of our communities.

And thus, the SAT is one part of the larger standards and testing era that inordinately drains our schools of time and funding that should be better spent elsewhere, notably in ways that address the inequity of access noted above.

We have much to praise and much to lament in Greenville county schools. SAT scores are not in either category since the new test brings with it the same old problems we refuse to name and then address.


Highlighted in red above, the point I made needs a bit more explanation.

I considered posting a separate blog titled “The Politics of Lazy Data Analysis,” but opt instead to expand on that briefly here.

The essential flaw in reporting average SAT scores and then using them to rank schools is that such reporting is simultaneously factual and misleading. As the chart below shows, ranking a group of high schools is doable and not essentially false since the scores are accurate.

While discussing the reporting with a friend who is a nurse and only knows about educational debates through mainstream media, my friend said that he noticed newspapers love charter schools, and from what he reads and hears, he believes charter schools are better than traditional schools.

And so, with the follow-up article on charter schools and the SCGSAH, we confront again that lazy data analysis combined with the aggressive self-promotion of charter schools produces a false narrative about charter schools somehow being superior than traditional public schools.

Instead, another just slightly less lazy analysis of the data below could be presented as “Local Low-Poverty High School Outperforms Low-Poverty Charter Schools on SAT.”

But even adding the Poverty Index to average SAT scores ignores that we are still not necessarily comparing equal populations of test takers: What about English language learner percentages and which students have taken college-level courses better aligned with SAT questions? What about percentages of test takers who have paid for SAT-prep training outside of school?

Finally, however, as noted above, the great flaw with any analysis of SAT data is grounded in the unavoidable fact that the SAT is not designed to measure school or teacher quality and that SAT scores mostly reflect factors other than academic achievement.

The politics of lazy data analysis, then, often uses actual facts while misrepresenting important topics: The implication that charter schools are outperforming traditional schools is simply not true. If we can or should try to determine what schools are academically effective, then using SAT data is a deeply misguided venture.

SAT PI Greenville