“We Teach English” Revisited

At times quaint and oddly misguided but unflinchingly confrontational and assertive—the signature tone of her work—Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English (1951) was a rare book-length text over her 65 years as an educator.

While this text for teachers of ELA/English never garnered the status of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (LaBrant and Rosenblatt were colleagues at NYU), both works represent a long history of trying to coral the field of ELA/English teaching.

A recent conversation and debate on NCTE’s Connected Community about teaching whole-class, assigned novels has reminded me of the enduring tensions of what it means to teach ELA/English—tensions that span K-12 grade levels as well as being grounded in responsibilities to student needs and interests, the field or discipline of English, and literacy broadly.

Historically and then magnified during the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, ELA/English has shared with math demands and expectations that are not as pronounced in other disciplines; despite the limitations and problems with the terms, I characterize those demands as addressing disciplinary knowledge (or content) and literacy skills.

Our disciplinary knowledge obligations rest with the compulsion to cover established content, such as identifying the parts of speech, analyzing the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, or explaining the key ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as American Transcendentalism.

Literacy skills comprise reading, writing, speaking, and listening—how we as humans navigate the world through literacy. Some see these skills as a different way to think about content, skills such as comprehension, predicting, narration, and persuasion.

At best, these obligations can and possibly should work in tandem. When we teach a poem, Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” for example, we are introducing students to key content about American literature and the Harlem Renaissance while also teaching them about the elements poetry, reading skills (such as analysis), and reading like a writer so they can transfer those rhetorical and literary strategies into their own writing.

Let me pause here to stress that at all levels from K-12, this is a damn high bar for any teacher. It takes a great deal of time and expertise to learn to manage all that effectively.

At worst, these obligations become professional and disciplinary battles—ones waged among practitioners often at the expense of students we should be serving.

We must teach phonics, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to read?

We must teach grammar, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to write?

Everyone must read The Great Gatsby, but what if that requirement creates nonreaders?

When we form ideological camps about disciplinary knowledge or literacy, we often fail both our field of ELA/English and students.

We teach English means something extremely complex and difficult, something that in fact may be too much to expect of any teacher.

But this is what we do, this is who we are.

If we return to the debate and discussion about teaching whole-class novels, we are revisiting an enduring debate that captures exactly what teaching English means.

To resolve that debate, I believe, we must remain focused on our students, and not on whether or not we address either area of demands in our field.

It is not a simple way to resolve the questions, but it is rather simple: When we attend to either disciplinary knowledge (and we should) or literacy skills (and we must), what are the consequences of those lessons in the evidence of learning by our students?

If we require our students to read Charles Dickens, and many do not read because they dislike the work, and many begin or continue the journey to being a nonreader, then we have failed dramatically any obligations as teachers of ELA/English.

If a whole-class unit on Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games becomes a vibrant adventure in the novel and literacy, and most if not all read the novel, if several become hooked on literature, then we have accomplished everything that can be expected of teaching ELA/English.

In terms of both student reading and writing, there are decades of evidence that show how student choice in what they read and write is most effective in both fostering disciplinary knowledge (because they actually read and write) and literacy skills as well as literacy engagement (because they become eager to read and write).

But we as teachers of ELA/English are confronted with the essential problem beneath the call for student choice: students must have acquired some disciplinary and skills knowledge and proficiencies in order to make those choices.

If we can keep a critical eye on the outcomes of the instructional decisions we make—if we can resist dogged commitments to ideologies—then we can make informed choices about what best serves our students in terms of both what disciplinary knowledge they acquire and whether or not they develop as proficient and eager readers and writers.

Staying big picture is important—always asking what we are trying to accomplish with students and then paying close attention to what our students show us we are teaching.

In 2004, Donald Graves looked over his career seeking ways to teach students writing; he offered some enduring ideas about “what remains the same”:

The following fundamentals have remained unchanged in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  1. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  1. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  1. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  1. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way, the children witness their teacher’s thinking
  2. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation. (Language Arts, Vol. 82 No. 2, November 2004)

In the same way as the debate over whole-class novel instruction, if we view Graves’s fundamentals as strict rules and teach to these rules—instead of to how we are fostering students as writers—we become lost, and we likely fail.

So, yes, students choosing what they read, especially something as daunting as a novel, is a fundamental, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the possibility of whole-class novels.

To answer any instructional questions, then, as a teacher of ELA/English is in our students, not our obligations to disciplinary knowledge or literacy skills—and especially not in covering the mandated standards or preparing students for high-stakes tests.

The questions are worthy of discussion and debate among teachers of ELA/English, but ultimately we must each answer them with each unique group of students we teach.

When faced with the debates and questions about teaching ELA/English, LaBrant could be harsh and demanding—often seeming to teeter on the edge of, if not crossing over into, prescription. However, what LaBrant was demanding about in terms of “we teach English” is not that we follow her rules, or any rules, but that we remain committed to our students and their journeys in both literature and literacy.

During war, in 1942, LaBrant became frustrated with national concerns about literacy:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem.

Sound familiar?

LaBrant argued against what became a recurring political and public hand wringing about a reading crisis:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more.

Here and for over six decades, LaBrant was a champion of the we who teach English but in the name of those students we teach, especially the most vulnerable students.

To that end, when we teach English, we teach students.

And there is where our commitments must lie.

Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

As a first-year English teacher, I joined the department of the high school where I had graduated only five years earlier, becoming a colleague with teachers who had taught me. That introduction to the field allowed me behind the curtain, and one of those secrets was being handed a sheet that detailed every grammar and mechanics error students were likely to make in their writing and the amount of points to be deducted from their grade (writing was assigned the traditional content/grammar grade then).

One fragment, by the way, was an immediate deduction that resulted in an F in grammar.

This was department policy, and my efforts to navigate that system were akin to Sisyphus, his rock, and that damned mountain.

Since then, well over thirty years ago, I have become a non-grader, but I also have investigated and adopted concepts about grading (since we all at some point must grade) that I believe are incredibly important in the context of seeing grading (and feedback) as a part of instruction—and not something we do to students and their work after we teach.

A  teacher recently asked on NCTE’s Connected Community about subtracting points for grammar in student writing, and this is an ideal entry point to rethink how grading (especially of writing) sends instructional messages to our students.

My first caution is about a serious flaw with traditional grading that is grounded in viewing assessment situations in a deficit model whereby we have students start with an unearned 100 points from which we subtract credit by identifying errors. This fosters an atmosphere of risk aversion—which is not a healthy environment for developing literacy.

Specifically when teaching writing, we must abandon the “error hunt” (see Weaver, et al., and Lois Matz Rosen).

Therefore, we can send a much healthier message about student performances of learning if we acknowledge that students begin all assessment situations with zero and then give them credit for what they accomplish, what the artifact of learning demonstrates—and not where they fail.

I learned this concept of grading through my Advanced Placement training that encourages viewing writing holistically and then reading for what students do, not conducting the “error hunt.”

Conceptually, then, we must change our language and then couch our grading in a drafting process that gives students the space to take risks while receiving ample feedback as they revise and edit their writing.

Our language about writing must stop referring to “mistakes” and “errors,” while also not asking students to “correct” their work.

Instead, we should delay addressing if our students are being conventional (grammar, mechanics, and usage) until late in the drafting process when we can agree a piece of writing is worth editing (see LaBrant). The question is not if and how much to deduct for surface features not being conventional, but when to consider those issues relevant to the drafting of the piece of writing.

Our feedback during the drafting process is our instruction, and then, most of us at some point must abandon each assignment, requiring that we assign a grade, an act that also is teaching students lessons—ones that should match our philosophy of teaching/learning as well as what we want them to embrace about writing and literacy.

Here, I recommend that we take a holistic approach (I love the upper-half, lower-half concepts of the AP 9-point scale rubric*), but I also believe we should help students learn that all aspects of writing contribute to that holistic response.

The two categories we should be using to grade writing, I think, are revision (if and how students demonstrate content, organization, diction, style) and editing (grammar, mechanics, and usage). When I have graded, I weighted those categories to reflect my main lessons about what makes writing effective by using a 20-point scale articulated as 10 points for content and organization, 5 points for diction and style, and 5 points for grammar, mechanics, and usage.

In all assessment, we should be seeking ways in which grading is both philosophically matched with our instruction and a seamless aspect of our instruction.

If you are teaching students writing quality is holistic and that surface features are less significant to meaning than content, organization, and diction/style, then calculating a grade based on deducting points for errors contradicts (and probably supersedes) your lessons.

Therefore, reducing the grading of writing by students to a set of points to be deducted fails as assessment and instruction.

While most teachers have no real option to de-grade the classroom, we can step back from deficit views of student work and grading in order to embrace grading and instructional practices that create positive learning environments (where risk is encouraged) and celebrate what our students accomplish in their journey as readers, writers, and thinkers.


* The process for scoring a written response to an AP Literature prompt includes thinking in terms of a range of scores 9-8, 7-6, 5, 4-3, 2-1. Above 5 is upper half, and below, lower half. As you read, you are constantly monitoring holistically if you believe the essay is upper or lower by focusing on in what ways the student is fulfilling the expectations of the prompt and remaining accurate in the analysis of the literature being discussed. Typically, that process allows the reader to return to the rubric to refine the grade after completing the essay. If you know the response is upper half but only marginally so, then returning to the 7 and 6 rubric descriptors help refine the final score.

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education

Teaching children according to their individual ‘learning style’ does not achieve better results,” reports Sally Weale, “and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.”

Narrowly about learning styles, but more broadly about the decade’s long tension over what research counts, this argument plays out incessantly in education. Notably in the U.S., calls for scientific teaching, research-based practices, and evidence-based policy have their roots in John Dewey’s progressivism, and then have been intensified throughout the accountability era begun in the 1980s and codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.

For about a century, education has simultaneously claimed to be driven by science and research while also being criticized for failing to use our research base and being trapped in fads.

This debunking of learning styles, then, is old hat; consider Lou LaBrant lamenting in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

And the problem rests with the Scylla and Charybdis of research: on one side, educators must resist the tyranny of a narrow definition of what counts as evidence (the so-called hard view grounded in experimental and quasi-experimental studies), and on the other, educators must resist the trendy and often reductive (lazy) extrapolations of research (within which we may place learning styles).

Let me offer here two powerful examples that I believe address this tension: the poverty materials of Ruby Payne and the “word gap” narrative.

In the wake of federal mandates in NCLB that required public schools to identify and then address the so-called achievement gap, Ruby Payne capitalized on an opportunity to provide schools with manageable workbooks and workshops.

However, after many schools and districts across the U.S. purchased Payne’s materials and seminars, scholars on social class and race began to unmask that Payne was peddling stereotypes, not providing evidence-based claims about children and families in poverty (scholarship debunking Payne as well as the Teachers College Record exchange can be found here).

The Payne phenomenon (one that continues despite her poverty characterizations being thoroughly discredited) reveals several problems with calling for education to be research-based.

First, and possibly most significantly, educational practices are far too influenced by the marketing of materials and the incessant training and re-training of teachers in the field. That market influence and dynamic is made robust since K-12 education is far more bureaucratic than scholarly.

The market influence necessarily creates the need for “new” and manageable, characteristics that often supersede the validity of those materials.

Payne’s success has been built on her self-promotion, not her expertise in poverty. Please note that when critics called her out for lacking research in her work, she immediately began building a case for how student test scores were affected when faculty were trained in her materials—a bait-and-switch of types of evidence; Payne was unable or unwilling to confront that her materials are classist and racist, refuted by the best scholarship on class and race.

Like Payne’s framework of poverty, the “word gap” has remained a robust narrative in the media and education; the claim argues literacy is quantifiable (more words equal greater literacy, and then social classes are correlated strongly with vocabulary; thus, affluent/more words with greater literacy than impoverished/fewer words).

Both Payne’s stereotypes about people in poverty and the “word gap” argument share an essential problem: they are compelling because they feed into popular beliefs that are contradicted by scholarship.

The “word gap” phenomenon, however, is interesting since it relies on essentially one study (by Hart and Risley) that everyone cites (citing research is a powerful appeal)—while ignoring, as with Payne, that a significant body of scholars have debunked the study.

Educators and education, then, are confronted with a real dilemma. Yes, scientific evidence and research are essential to the field of teaching and learning, but what science and research count is fraught with land mines.

From learning styles to Payne’s framework and the “word gap,” advocates and critics both march out evidence, research.

And, for more examples, the current popularity of “grit” and growth mindset research fall into the exact same traps. “Grit” comes with the label of “MacArthur Genius,” and both are all the rage (as has been Payne) in teacher training—despite ample evidence that “grit” and growth mindset are deeply flawed by racist and classist assumptions, and then horribly misapplied in a wide range of educational setting.

In short, education has been a victim for a century of the TED Talk-ification of science and research.

That means education often embraces faulty research (compelling because it matches beliefs/stereotypes/myths, is well marketed, and/or is easily implemented) and routinely oversimplifies and overgeneralizes (the silver-bullet approach) credible research to the point that it too becomes flawed.

By contrast, scholars work slowly and are moored in peer-review—all of which helps resist the corrosive allure of the market as well as the need to be accessible to lay people.

This, I believe, is at the root of LaBrant’s lament about the gap between what science and research reveal and what educators practice.

As a critical educator also committed to evidence-based practices, I can offer some suggestions that allow policy makers and classroom practitioners a way to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of research in education:

  • Resist choosing between hard and soft definitions of research. Quantitative and qualitative data have value because in education we should be aware of valid generalizations while also anticipating and being able to address outliers. “Never” and “always” tend to fail us, then. Teaching is about both addressing classrooms of students and each student in that class.
  • Beware heavily marketed programs. Simply put, any research conveniently reduced to a packaged program is either questionable or over-simplified research; our classrooms should not use either.
  • Simultaneously trust your instincts as a practitioner (what has worked, what has failed) while being vigilant to back away from your personal assumptions in order to interrogate your prejudices and beliefs.
  • Do your own literature reviews. The first response by educators to top-down mandates and adopted programs or required workshops is to investigate. The Internet makes this process quite manageable, and healthy skepticism is a powerful tool of any professional.
  • Remain grounded in how messy and unpredictable teaching and learning are as human endeavors. There are no silver bullets, and there likely is nothing new (educational research in the U.S. is a solid century old and much of what we claim to know now—as “new”—we knew many decades ago as well).
  • Reject the mantras of business that invade education such as “innovation.” For education to be evidence-based, we must work from a foundation of experience and expertise (the idealizing of the outsider perspective is bogus) as well as clearly and accurately describing and identifying problems so that we may match appropriate solutions to those complex problems.

So what do we do, then, with learning styles (or “grit” and growth mindset)?

We must admit that education has likely oversold and misapplied the concept, but those of us who teach daily are probably not compelled by hard science’s argument it has no value.

If we are practicing learning styles to meet some mandate about learning styles, we have made a huge bureaucratic mistake. If we ignore the evidence of our students that learning occurs along a spectrum, that some practices match better certain students, then we are making a human error.

As teachers, we must captain our own ships, navigating carefully not to crash into either the rock or the hard place. Ultimately, this is about professionalism—knowing the evidence because we have done the work, not because it is a mandate or an adopted program.

We must remain vigilant in our sacred trust to teach students, and in doing so, resist distracting allegiances to “scientific,” “research,” “evidence,” and especially “programs” to the exclusion of those students.

See Also

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

Teacher Quality: A Reader in 2017

Let me start with a full disclosure: Lawrence Baines is a colleague and friend with whom I have collaborated on several book projects and presentations. So I want to offer some friendly concerns about his thoughtful When ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Aren’t in Education Week.

Baines open with: “Recent research confirms that America’s most vulnerable children are being taught by the least-qualified teachers.”

This is incredibly important, but let’s clarify a few points. Vulnerable students include black and brown students, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students. And Baines is highlighting a truly ugly fact about unwritten policies in education: these vulnerable populations of students are assigned disproportionately new and early-career teachers as well as un-/under-certified teachers.

Dozens of studies for many years have confirmed that administrations commonly “reward” veteran teachers by assigning them “good” students and advanced courses such as AP and IB.

Add to that dynamic that the rise of charter schools linked strongly with TFA has increased the likelihood that vulnerable students will be assured a continual stream of uncertified and new teachers.

Confronting the increased bureaucratization of teacher preparation and alternative certification programs, Baines makes his central case: “The continual dumbing-down of the preparation of teachers is not without consequences.”

I would argue that the “dumbing-down” is about the false attack on “bad” teachers as the primary or even single cause of low student achievement among, specifically, vulnerable students.

And the ugly consequence of that assault has been increasing accountability over teacher certification and teacher evaluation (such as using value-added methods) and thus demonizing teachers without improving teaching or learning.

Another repeated fact of education is that measurable student learning (usually test scores) is most strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of students’ home; see this about Arkansas, which is typical across the U.S.

So here is the teacher quality dilemma: If we demand that teacher quality is the primary mechanism for improving student achievement, and if that is a false claim (which it is), we are doomed to both destroying the profession and discouraging anyone from entering that profession.

And Baines concludes: “All of the highest-performing countries in the world require teachers to obtain advanced degrees, demonstrate pedagogical and subject-matter expertise, accumulate significant teaching experience, and show an aptitude for working with children before stepping into the classroom as full-time teachers.”

Herein we are confronted with what it means to prepare well people to teach. And how do we disentangle teacher preparation and teacher evaluation from corrosive and ill-informed bureaucracy (certification and accreditation) while also providing the context within which we can create robust and challenging teacher education as well as ongoing professional development for teachers?

My short answer is that standards, certification, and accreditation are all the problems, not the solutions. Teacher education needs to be re-envisioned as the other disciplines, which are often self-regulating and robust because of professionalism and fidelity to the discipline among members of that discipline.

Since I have written on these issues often, I offer here a reader to help confront the issues raised by Baines:

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy: Failing Public Schools

Everything you need to know about the post-truth demonizing of public schools and false promises of charter schools is in these two paragraphs from Education Week, the queen of misinforming edujournalism:

At their best, the most innovative charter schools provide convincing evidence that there are better ways to educate students (especially disadvantaged ones) than now prevail in most traditional district schools. In fact, these pioneering schools bring together most of the innovative policies and practices needed to transform the nation’s traditional schools into the most successful in the world.

And yet, most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation. And their processes are so ingrained that one significant alteration would inevitably lead to systemic change or even a total redesign. Few public educators can imagine, let alone undertake, such dramatic change.

Edujournalism has been for decades a harbinger of the current threats to democracy posed by, not fake news, but post-truth journalism, the sort of enduring but false claims that drive mainstream media and remain unchecked by the public.

I recently detailed eight post-truth claims about public education that have fueled over three decades of baseless and harmful education reform; we are now poised for a resurgence of school choice schemes as the next wave of more unwarranted policies unsupported by research and not grounded in credible analyses of education failures.

The paragraphs above traffic in very predictable nonsense—”innovative charter schools” and public schools and educators who actively resist change—that resonates only with those who have no real experience in public education.

This nonsense is driven by the self-proclaimed innovators, few of whom are actual educators, and embraced by the public, most of whom have been students in public schools, and thus, believe they know the system.

Let’s here, then, unpack the nonsense.

First, I can offer a perspective that includes gaining my teaching certificate in a traditional program in the early 1980s before teaching public high school English for 18 years in the rural South, a small-town high school in a moderately impoverished areas.

Significant also is that my teaching career began the same year that South Carolina’s accountability system kicked into high gear; SC was an early and eager adopter of the standards and high-stakes testing movement that has driven K-12 public schools for over three decades.

I also have now taught in higher education for the past 15 years, as a teacher educator having one foot still in public schools (and the bureaucracy that controls it) and another in a much more autonomous profession as a tenured professor.

The Great Lie about charter schools versus public schools is very complex. The lie begins with the hollow use of “innovation,” a term that means nothing except in the sort of pyramid-scheme reality now promoted by Trump and newly minted Secretary of Education DeVos.

The lie then falls apart when you unpack the claim that innovative charter schools will save public education; we must ask, if bureaucracy and mandates are crippling public schools, and freedom to be innovative is the key to charter schools, why not just release public schools from the bureaucracy and mandates so that all schools are free to innovate?

The answer reveals the circular and misleading logic of the Great Lie that is charter innovation: For decades, school choice advocates have struggled against the public remaining mostly against school choice, mostly in favor of their local public schools (even when the public holds a negative view of public schools in general). How, then, could the public be turned against public schools?

The solution has been relentless and ever-increasing mandates that guarantee the self-fulfilling prophesy of public schools.

From SOE DeVos to the EdWeek narrative above, relentless education reform has resulted in creating public schools and teachers trapped in mandates and then criticizing them for not being innovative.

If innovation is really the solution to the problem facing public schools (and I suspect it isn’t), teachers need autonomy.

Yet, education reform has systematically de-professionalized teaching, systematically made teaching and learning less effective, and systematically overwhelmed schools with impossible demands so that the public sees only a failing system, one that the innovator-propagandists can smear as resisting change, refusing to innovate, and doomed to failure—with only innovative charter schools to save the day.

When we peel back the post-truth rhetoric, evidence fails to support claims of charter school success, and five minutes in a public school reveal that schools and teachers are not incapable of “imagin[ing] dramatic change,” but are blocked from practicing their professional autonomy by the exact forces accusing them of being against reform.

Public school teachers have never had professional autonomy, and most cannot even go to the restroom when they need to.

Spitting in the face of public school teachers as the paragraphs above do is the worst of post-truth journalism.

I have now spent about the same amount of time as an educator in K-12 public schools and higher education.

The professional autonomy gulf between the two is stunning.

K-12 public schools and teachers are scapegoats in a ridiculous political charade that depends on post-truth journalism and a gullible public.

There is nothing innovative about that.

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Based on a U.S. News & World Report ranking, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) announced South Carolina ranks last in education.

South Carolina also ranks first in women being murdered by men.

Rankings are popular in the U.S., but more often than not, terrible ways to understand what is being ranked as well as distracting fodder for both the media and politicians.

Ranking itself is problematic since the act itself requires finding data that supports that ranking, and then by ranking we are ascribing both a range of quality as well as some degree of blame for the relative status.

When saying SC is last in education and first in violence toward women, we must take greater care in clarifying what these rankings mean and where the accountability lies for both outcomes and the causes for those outcomes.

I suspect many would fault SC public schools for the education ranking, but almost no one would blame heterosexual domestic relationships for the inordinate rate of men’s violence toward women in the state.

But even more important here is that both of these rankings reveal something in common nearly entirely ignored: political negligence in SC.

The U.S. News ranking of education is far less about education, in fact, than about socio-economics.

Three of the six data categories to rank states by education are test scores (ACT and NAEP math and reading), and the other three are graduation rates as well as Pre-K quality and preschool enrollment.

At least 60% of test scores prove time and again to be correlated with out-of-school factors. In short, what we routinely label as “education” is in fact more significantly a reflection of poverty and wealth.

And thus, if we are compelled to say SC is last in education, we are actually saying that SC’s social and education policy are utter failures. The key here is that this ranking is about policy, a direct reflection of political will, political negligence.

And SC is easily in competition for elite status in political negligence of education as shown in the twenty years it took for the courts to address the Corridor of Shame, finally admitting that high-poverty schools serving high-poverty communities result in students being doubly disadvantaged by their lives and their school opportunities.

For comparison, consider SC’s violence toward women ranking and the state being one of 13 states that treat marital rape differently than rape of a non-spouse:

Men or women raped by a spouse have just 30 days to report the incident to authorities. For the rape to count, it must have involved “the use or the threat to use a weapon … or physical violence of a high and aggravated nature.” The offense is treated as a felony but has a maximum sentence of 10 years, whereas rape of a non-spouse has a maximum sentence of 30 years.

In both rankings, then, we must ask how policy creates the environments reflected in measurable outcomes—such as test scores and graduation rates or incidences of violence toward women.

There is a political advantage to keep media and public focus on schools with educational rankings; that focus, however, is akin to blaming hospitals for housing the sick.

Schools in SC and across the U.S. reflect the inequities of our communities, the failures of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change.

While we have known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning, we have committed to decades of changing standards and testing students—and we appear poised to waste time and funding next on school choice scheme.

None of this addresses the root causes of the outcomes we continue to use to rank educational quality, a process that masks, misinforms, and guarantees to maintain the status quo.

Ranking invariably proves to be much ado about nothing because it tends to misrepresent and misinform, especially in terms of why conditions exist and what reforms would improve those conditions.

Policy is at the core of both any state’s educational outcomes and what threatens the safety of women.

Policy reflects what truly matters, and in SC, our rankings in terms of education and violence toward women are commentaries on who we are as a people, who we are willing to ignore and who we are willing to protect.

Ultimately, both of these rankings expose that SC ranks first in political negligence, negligence of equity in the lives and education of children, negligence in the safety of women.

Collaborative Assessment in the De-Graded Classroom

Today my foundations in education class took their midterm:

My classes are already disorienting for students, especially our high-achieving types we attract at a selective liberal arts college, because I do not grade any assignments—although I must give a final grade in the courses.

Just before this midterm, in fact, I returned the group grade sheets that had scores of √+, √, and √-, prompting one student to ask before the exam just what grade those are.

In this course, I do not have a traditional synoptic text, but I do assign two powerful books—Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap and Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

Gorski’s book is the first half of the course, and Emdin’s, the second; but both are explored through a book club format in which students meet in small groups four or five times over the half of the semester the book is assigned to discuss as they read.

They submit written reflections, but there are no tests, except that we use Gorski’s book for our midterm experience.

I say “experience” since the midterm I now use is a discussion, a collaborative assessment.

All students must submit before the exam period four or five talking points from Gorski’s book, noting page numbers, quotes, key ideas, and possibly connecting these with other aspects of the class such as their tutoring field work or readings connected to the topics of the course.

Then during the exam period, students have small group discussions for about 15-20 minutes before we move to a whole-class discussion, all the while I am eaves dropping only.

I then use the final 7-10 minutes to debrief about the entire low-stakes reading experience and the unusual exam format.

Since I have been doing this now for several years, some key patterns have developed.

First, and I believe important to stress, despite not being graded or tested, virtually all the students actually read the book, and then the discussions are always animated and detailed.

Students today and in the past stressed that the low-stakes (no grades, no tests) helped make the reading and discussion richer.

Next, and related, the exam itself becomes a learning experience; students have greater understanding of the material after the exam than from preparing for the exam.

In a low-stakes collaborative exam setting, students who prepare well can feel confident they will have an opportunity to succeed—unlike the anxiety that occurs when students do study intensely but find the test itself unlike what they have prepared.

Of course, and we discussed this, some negative consequences do come with low-stakes collaborative assessment such as this class discussion.

One of the most complex is how we honor very limited ways for students to be engaged—talking aloud. Introverted or self-conscious students are at a disadvantage in these “on stage” activities.

The two ways I address that is having each student send in talking points and starting with small-group discussions in which virtually all students do feel comfortable participating.

Another problem is helping students overcome their natural anxiety about not being graded since they have depended on that process for many years of schooling.

I also address that by telling students they may any time and as often as needed meet with me in order to discuss what their grade would be in the course if I were grading.

Finally, since students run the entire exam discussion, we run the risk of misinformation being shared without any real mechanism to address; however, over the years, this has rarely happened, and when it has, I simply come back to it in a later class sessions.

At first, the class discussion exam was an experiment, but now, it is a staple of my courses that has proven time and again to be one of the best days in any course I teach.