Strangers in Academia: Teaching and Scholarship at the Margins

No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what nights in prison are like.

Meursault, The Stranger, Albert Camus

I left public education after an 18-year career as a high school English teacher and coach. The exit had its symbolism because at that time I was wearing a wrist brace on my right hand from overuse after almost two decades of responding to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries per year; in other words, I left public education broken.

A former student of mine on the cusp of becoming a first-year English teacher asked me recently what my first years were like, and I had to confess that from day one, my career as an educator has always been at the margins, a stranger at all levels of formal schooling and academia.

Yes, my hand was exhausted from marking essays, but I was broken as a public school teacher by administrators and in a bit of not so hyperbolic science fiction, The System.

Every single day of my life as a public school teacher, I worked against the system—but I did so with my door open because I believed (and still believe) my defiance was for The Cause.

I was never defiant for my own benefit, but resistant to the structures, policies, and practices that I believed dehumanized teachers and students, that worked against formal education as liberation.

I didn’t punish students for being a few seconds late to class, for asking to go to the restroom. I didn’t stand guard at the doorway or in the hallways as if we were surveilling a criminal population of teens.

We laughed and moved around in my room, played music and even danced during breaks. Students ate candy, food, sneaking in drinks occasionally.

And to a fault, I was friendly with my students—a friend to my students. In the perfect sort of irony or symmetry, many of those students are today my friends on Facebook.

But toward the end, after year upon year of wrestling with administration and finding little collegiality or camaraderie among my colleagues, I found my breaking point when I took off days to present at a national conference—one I was afforded through my doctoral program, which I completed while a full-time high school teachers—and returned to work to discover I was docked pay for those days and even the substitute fee.

Public education, I learned, had no room for teachers who were also scholars.

Because the opportunity presented itself, I begrudgingly applied for, was offered, and then accepted (at a significant reduction in pay) a position in higher education as a teacher educator.

I entered the role as tenure track assistant professor very naive (even in my early 40s) and so deluded by public education that I also idealized higher education: my land of milk and honey where my full self as educator, writer, and scholar would be not only welcomed, but also encouraged.

After 14 years an the university level, making my way through tenure to full professor, let me offer the short version: more delusion.

“Don’t be so political.” “I never published an Op-Ed until I had tenure.” “Dressing awfully casually for a junior faculty member.”

Yes, my university is in many ways a very wonderful place, and my colleagues are brilliant and supportive.

But the old patterns recurred in higher education that had run me out of public education: critical pedagogy isn’t welcomed, scholarly activity creates as much friction as it receives praise, wading into public intellectual work creates even more friction, and even well-educated people can be prejudiced and petty.

Department politics and dynamics have proven to be as frustrating (for me and other professors) as my experiences with administration while I was a public school teacher.

As one example, my university has recently conducted a gender equity study because the playing field isn’t level here. Professors of color and LGBT professors will also note significant inequities as well.

Higher education has revealed itself to be in many ways as flawed as public education because even in our systems of formal education, we are apt to replicate the society we serve instead of being a working model of how things could be, how things should be.

Race, class, gender, sexual identification, and ideology—these all even in higher education create those of us who are strangers in academia; we are forced to teach, conduct scholarship, and write at the margins.

Just making this claim, I know, pushes me further to the margins, boundaries possibly well secured by the statuses I have attained despite being a stranger in academia.

Yet, I am not yet willing to throw up my hands and simply accept that we cannot be otherwise—because if the most well educated cannot set aside our biases, what hope for all of humanity?

In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the allegory reveals the existential message that we are all prisoners. Meursault, after being literally imprisoned, confesses, “Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner.”

But readers are cautioned to note that Meursault also makes the case that his new situation in a physical prison is no different than his life as a so-called free man.

As academics, I think, it is ours to resist the same dynamic between the so-called real world and academia in which there is essentially no difference.

Academia need not be the pejorative “Ivory Tower,” suggesting we are above it all, but academia sure as hell could be, should be a model of how to honor and celebrate the human dignity of everyone.

Gary Rubinstein’s “TFA’s Latest PR Stunt”

Please read as a powerful companion to my confronting the very “bad” edujournalism we experience daily.

Gary Rubinstein's Blog

The ‘advertorial’ is, in my opinion, the lowest form of advertising.  Perhaps you’ve never heard this word before, but you have surely nearly fallen for this kind of deceit when reading what you think is a newspaper article with a flashy headline before noticing, in small print, the words ‘advertisement.’

An ‘Advertorial’

Education Week used to be the gold standard in education reporting.  I can remember how proud I was in October 1995 when, at just 25 years old, I got my first ‘published’ article in a ‘real’ publication, Education Week’s Teacher Magazine, for a piece I wrote called ‘Natural Born Teacher.’  Over the next six years, I was always so proud whenever I’d get a piece accepted into either Teacher Magazine or Education Week.

As the internet grew and Twitter gained popularity, I joined and of course followed Education Week.  Though I’ve found Education Week to be generally slanted…

View original post 544 more words

Dear Edujournalists: Listen, Learn

The media and educational love affair with “grit” has at least two sources for the frenzy: Paul Tough, journalist, making “grit” popular and accessible and Angela Duckworth, scholar and “genius,” giving “grit” the allure of research and science.

And now, both Tough and Duckworth have released books continuing the “grit” train—and interestingly, both are doing so with some light backpedalling about their initial claims that have mostly been embraced by the privileged and used on vulnerable populations of students (black/brown, poor, ELL).

Concurrent with that backpedalling comes as well a significant challenge to Duckworth’s research on “grit”: Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature, Marcus Credé, Michael C. Tynan, and Peter D. Harms.

As reported by NPR:

Here are the key claims in Crede’s paper:

  1. Effect sizes in one of Duckworth’s major papers on grit were described incorrectly to sound misleadingly large.
  2. The impact of grit is exaggerated, especially when looking at broader populations of people — not just the high achievers in Duckworth’s initial studies.
  3. Grit is nearly identical to conscientiousness, which has been known to psychologists for decades as a major dimension of personality. It is not something that’s necessarily open to change, especially in adults, whereas Duckworth in her writings suggests that grit is.

In other words, this analysis of research on “grit” suggests that the science as well as Duckworth’s representation of that research is significantly overstated.

So why did “grit,” and Duckworth, garner so much media and educational momentum?

One reason is the utter failure of edujournalism; another reason is that the “grit” narrative speaks to and perpetuates racist and classist beliefs among the U.S. public; and a final reason is that Duckworth’s “genius” grant as well as her TedX talk provided financial and celebrity cover for her shoddy work.

But this pattern of media/educational overreaction followed by an unmasking by more careful scholarly analysis is not by any stretch new.

Take as just one example how Malcolm Gladwell (fellow “good” journalist to Tough) made the 10,000-hour rule popular—so much so that the number is mentioned over and over to this day throughout all sorts of mainstream media.

Yet, the scholar whose work is the foundation for the popularized and misleading 10,000-hour rule, K. Anders Ericsson—unlike Duckworth [1]—directly refuted how the media has distorted his work: The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments.

The 10,000-hour rule pattern—bad media coverage of scholarship—is the same as the “grit” mess—and this pattern happens weekly because mainstream edujournalists will not listen (they argue edujournalism is the best it has ever been), and will not learn.

Just as Duckworth has been afforded in major media outlets, Tough is peddling his new book, and his very bad journalism, through opinion pieces masking promotional material.

And day after day, education bloggers are forced to confront the horrible consequences of negligent and inexpert edujournalism (see for example, Campbell Brown’s Bizarre NAEP Response in the Washington Post).

Here, then, I want to offer edujournalists a series of ways in which edujournalism persists to fail:

  1. Seeking outlier schools in order to write “miracle” school feel-good stories. First, outliers schools are often proven to be false stories, but even if they are somehow exceptional, outliers never provide any evidence of what should be normal in education (or any human behavior). At their core, “miracle” school stories are shaming stories that cast “other schools” as negligent, just not trying hard enough.
  2. Presenting education research and science in simplistic terms and failing to couch any one study in the context of the broader body of research or against unbiased reviews of that study. Especially since mainstream media are contracting, edujournalism is even more susceptible to press-release journalism—simply restating what aggressive researchers and think tanks send to the media without regard for whether or not that research is credible (thus, above, the overstating by both Duckworth and media coverage).
  3. Remaining trapped in rankings and state-to-state or international comparisons. Not only are rankings and comparisons mostly misleading, in many cases, the rankings are fabricated (seeking ways to force a ranking instead of admitting that the objects ranked are essentially the same), and comparisons are made at superficial levels that ignore significant differences in what is being compared (see HERE).
  4. Uncritically embracing crisis discourse about education that ignores historical patterns involving education, poverty, and racism. Current “crisis” education stories about “bad” schools, “bad” teachers, and “kids today” have been recycled in the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s. The “crisis” label allows edujournalists, politicians, and the public to ignore social and policy causes for the consequences being identified as the “crisis.”
  5. Perpetuating false claims about the power of formal education: education as the “great equalizer,” education as the key to individual and societal economic success. Facts are not always what we want to be true, but educational attainment in the U.S. remains less important than race, gender, or the social class of any child’s family. Education is not the great equalizer. As well, as Gerald Bracey and many others have shown, there simply is no clear positive correlation between the so-called quality of education and any state’s or country’s economic success.
  6. Over-stating the impact of so-called teacher quality, and under-stating the impact of social influences on measurable student outcomes. The most conservative research shows that measurable student outcomes (test scores) are primarily (about 60%) a reflection of out-of-school factors; teacher quality and even school quality impact those scores at much lower percentages, about 10-15%.
  7. Giving lip-service to the impact of poverty, racism, and sexism on formal schooling, and suggesting that focusing on poverty, racism, and sexism is simply as “excuse.” The mainstream media speak to and perpetuate the rugged individualism myth in the U.S. Edujournalists uncritically accept and preach that myth by giving passing nods to poverty, racism, and sexism, but nearly always moving immediately to focusing on individuals—teachers need to try harder, students need to try harder.
  8. Bumbling both what statistics show and how statistics are presented to the public. Edujournalists are victims of blurring cause and correlation, overstating “significance,” and failing to address false comparisons (consider the routinely awful charter/public school comparisons).
  9. Perpetuating a long list of go-to educational facts that are actually false: the word gap, third-grade reading proficiency, school funding does not matter, Teach For America, charter schools and private schools trump public schools, for example. Edujournalists, like the public, uncritically accept claims that sound true, but as journalists, should be interrogating these claims exactly because they sound too pat.
  10. Giving non-educators both primary and exclusive voices in education debate. Edujournalists love economists, psychologists, and think tank advocates—but avoid educators and educational scholars, except occasionally to allow them space as “critics” (see as one example NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative).
  11. Seeing all educational topics as a “both sides” debate with each side given nearly equal status. Edujournalists refrain from considering and/or explaining that some stances in education are significantly more credible than others. As do most journalists who fear being activists and worship at the alter of “objective,” edujournalists fail the Oliver Rule.
  12. Thinking without an ounce of imagination. Accountability, standardized testing, grades, grade levels—these and dozens of “normal” and “traditional” practices are never realistically challenged in edujournalism; no consideration is given to things could be otherwise. A failure of imagination is seeking out and believing in new tests and new standards; imagination allows us to rethink a better school system without tests and without standards.

I remain a vigilant critic of edujorunalists/edujournalism, but I have been a career-long critic of educators/education as well.

This criticism of, and plea to, edujournalists is grounded in my belief that the U.S. needs a critical free press as much as we need a critical education system.

Edujournalists, like educators, need to listen, and to learn.


UPDATED: Please Read

TFA’s Latest PR Stunt, Gary Rubinstein

[1] Note that Ericsson’s research has been conducted in conjunction with Duckworth on occasion.

Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students

“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”

But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.

Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.

Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.

Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.

Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.

In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.

Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”

This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.

To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.

Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”

Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.

Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.

Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.

“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.

But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.

Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.

There simply is no right way to do those.


See Also

Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, Tham Khai Meng

Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

John Merrow and the Delusions of Edujournalism

Veteran edujournalist John Merrow claims on his blog: “Education reporting has never been better than it is right now.”

Diane Ravitch mused on her blog about how I would respond to Merrow so here you go.

First, Merrow’s assertion can be true only if edujournalism was criminally horrible in the past to which he is comparing today’s journalism—which is negligently horrible.

Next, since Merrow mentions the Education Writers Association (EWA), his delusional post represents perfectly a central problem with edujournalism reflected in EWA: edujournalists are trapped within an insular norm of reporting that includes both traditional flaws in journalism (objective journalism anchored in reporting “both sides” dispassionately) and contemporary market forces that are contracting mainstream media, resulting in press-release journalism by journalists without the necessary expertise or experiences needed to report on a discipline or field.

In some of his most high-profile work, in fact, Merrow has personified a double failure common among edujrounalist: first, Merrow eagerly participated in the media’s creation of Michelle Rhee, and then, he fumbled badly and inadequately the media’s holding Rhee accountable for her horrible policies and inept (possibly criminal) leadership.

Merrow hangs his praise on several outlets that focus on education:

National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters).  Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business.  (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!)  There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.

Routinely, however, these exact outlets mangle reporting about schools, teachers, and all aspects of formal education (see, for example, examinations of Education Week and NPR).

The primary mainstream outlets for edujournalism are negligently horrible—unable to rise above press-release journalism, to see through the political manipulation of journalism and education, to listen to professional educators and researchers, or to critically examine assumptions about children/students, teaching and learning, and the purposes of school.

Merrow also celebrates: “When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!”

Setting aside we eschew all caps and exclamation points in the writing of middle schoolers, again, his celebration proves his delusion.

As I have examined in How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?, this award-winning series does represent the pinnacle of edujournalism, but that pinnacle is well below the level of “good journalism”: treating old news as new news (edujournalists as non-expert in the field have no historical lens about education) and framing educational quality within a simplistic and flawed context that outcomes are primarily about individual effort (students, teachers).

After listing a tired list of edustories needing to be told, Merrow ends with “In sum, education reporters are getting it right. Now keep on keeping on!”

We are left with a veteran edujournalist reporting very badly on edujournalism.

If only this were satire.

The Truth about “Good” Schools

When I posted about how political and media labels of “good” and “bad” schools are significantly misleading—more about race and class than the actual quality of the schools—I received a request to identify some “good” schools.

Here is the disturbing truth about “good” schools: Among formal schools, both public and private, there are no “good schools.”

Traditional schooling is mired in a number of wrong-minded approaches to children and young adults, to teaching and learning, and to what we believe the purposes of schooling are.

Formal schooling is mostly bad.

Good teaching happens when teachers take risks, work outside the norms of schooling.

Good learning happens for many students in spite of formal schooling.

In this last circumstance, consider how English classes tend to make students hate reading, that students who are avid readers often do so under the school radar—toting around huge books they choose to read (instead of doing school work), reading and collecting comic books (please read Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo for some vivid examples of this reality).

That formal schooling is mostly bad, that good teaching occurs mostly by renegade teaching, that good learning happens mostly in spite of formal schooling—these are all made more disturbing because children in privilege (living in slack) suffer far fewer negative consequences in these realities, but children under the weight of poverty and racism (living in scarcity) suffer the double negative consequences of a bad life and bad schooling.

Children living in scarcity must be superhuman in order to learn in spite of schooling—especially since their teachers are under heightened pressures and even less likely to be risk takers.

We must stop demanding superhuman (and inhuman) expectations of the most vulnerable children and young adults. We must stop looking for and pretending there are “miracle” schools—outlier good schools—we can use to shame bad schooling in an inequitable society.

Instead, we need to reimagine formal education that is unlike the inequitable society those schools serve—attending instead to the needs of all students, regardless of the lives no child chooses (whether one of slack or scarcity).

Corporal Punishment: A Reader

University study finds spanking harmful for children, Desiree Chew

The Stream: Should parents spare the spank

Here’s What Getting Spanked as a Kid Did to Your Personality, According to Science, Jordyn Taylor

Risks of Harm from Spanking Confirmed by Analysis of Five Decades of Research

Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses, Gershoff, Elizabeth T.; Grogan-Kaylor, Andrew

Follow Dr. Stacey Patton on Twitter and Facebook; and see Spare the Kids.

Patton keynote Part I:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstacey.patton.9%2Fvideos%2F10153633720951094%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Patton keynote Part II:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstacey.patton.9%2Fvideos%2F10153633957876094%2F&show_text=0&width=560

There is no debate about hitting children – it’s just wrong

Corporal punishment leads to more immediate compliant behavior in children, but is also associated with physical abuse. Should parents be counseled for or against spanking?
WASHINGTON — Corporal punishment remains a widely used discipline technique in most American families, but it has also been a subject of controversy within the child development and psychological communities. In a large-scale meta-analysis of 88 studies, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, looked at both positive and negative behaviors in children that were associated with corporal punishment. Her research and commentaries on her work are published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association.
While conducting the meta-analysis, which included 62 years of collected data, Gershoff looked for associations between parental use of corporal punishment and 11 child behaviors and experiences, including several in childhood (immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of relationship with parent, and physical abuse from that parent), three in both childhood and adulthood (mental health, aggression, and criminal or antisocial behavior) and one in adulthood alone (abuse of own children or spouse).
Gershoff found “strong associations” between corporal punishment and all eleven child behaviors and experiences. Ten of the associations were negative such as with increased child aggression and antisocial behavior. The single desirable association was between corporal punishment and increased immediate compliance on the part of the child.
The two largest effect sizes (strongest associations) were immediate compliance by the child and physical abuse of the child by the parent. Gershoff believes that these two strongest associations model the complexity of the debate around corporal punishment.
“That these two disparate constructs should show the strongest links to corporal punishment underlines the controversy over this practice. There is general consensus that corporal punishment is effective in getting children to comply immediately while at the same time there is caution from child abuse researchers that corporal punishment by its nature can escalate into physical maltreatment,” Gershoff writes.
But, Gershoff also cautions that her findings do not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent. A variety of situational factors, such as the parent/child relationship, can moderate the effects of corporal punishment. Furthermore, studying the true effects of corporal punishment requires drawing a boundary line between punishment and abuse. This is a difficult thing to do, especially when relying on parents’ self-reports of their discipline tactics and interpretations of normative punishment.
“The act of corporal punishment itself is different across parents – parents vary in how frequently they use it, how forcefully they administer it, how emotionally aroused they are when they do it, and whether they combine it with other techniques. Each of these qualities of corporal punishment can determine which child-mediated processes are activated, and, in turn, which outcomes may be realized,” Gershoff concludes.
The meta-analysis also demonstrates that the frequency and severity of the corporal punishment matters. The more often or more harshly a child was hit, the more likely they are to be aggressive or to have mental health problems.
While the nature of the analyses prohibits causally linking corporal punishment with the child behaviors, Gershoff also summarizes a large body of literature on parenting that suggests why corporal punishment may actually cause negative outcomes for children. For one, corporal punishment on its own does not teach children right from wrong. Secondly, although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, when parents are not present to administer the punishment those same children will misbehave.
In commentary published along with the Gershoff study, George W. Holden, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, writes that Gershoff’s findings “reflect the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm.” Holden submits that the psychological community should not be advocating spanking as a discipline tool for parents.
In a reply to Gershoff, researchers Diana Baumrind, PhD (Univ. of CA at Berkeley), Robert E. Larzelere, PhD (Nebraska Medical Center), and Philip Cowan, PhD (Univ.of CA at Berkeley), write that because the original studies in Gershoff’s meta-analysis included episodes of extreme and excessive physical punishment, her finding is not an evaluation of normative corporal punishment.
“The evidence presented in the meta-analysis does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking,” conclude Baumrind and her team. Baumrind et al. also conclude that “a high association between corporal punishment and physical abuse is not evidence that mild or moderate corporal punishment increases the risk of abuse.”
Baumrind et al. suggest that those parents whose emotional make-up may cause them to cross the line between appropriate corporal punishment and physical abuse should be counseled not to use corporal punishment as a technique to discipline their children. But, that other parents could use mild to moderate corporal punishment effectively. “The fact that some parents punish excessively and unwisely is not an argument, however, for counseling all parents not to punish at all.”
In her reply to Baumrind et al., Gershoff states that excessive corporal punishment is more likely to be underreported than overreported and that the possibility of negative effects on children caution against the use of corporal punishment.
“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use,” Gershoff writes.

Lead authors can be reached at:

Elizabeth Gershoff

University office: (212) 304-7149

Home office: (212) 316-0387

Robert Larzelere

402 498-1936

OR

402-559-2282

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Good Schools, Bad Schools: More Codes that Blind

On the first class of my May X course on educational documentaries, we watched the short and really powerful film Crenshaw by Lena Jackson.

The film introduces students to many of the key patterns of educational reform over the last thirty-plus years, including how we talk politically and publicly about good schools and bad schools as well as how we have chosen to address inequitable opportunities and outcomes among identifiable populations of students by race and social class.

Crenshaw specifically addresses the political strategies of closing so-called bad schools—often including takeover policies and cosmetic renamings of historically important schools for communities.

The morning of the second class, I read Why the board is closing Lincoln about the same dynamic in Charleston, SC, my home state.

Beyond the disturbing pattern of trying the same approaches over and over while expecting different results (the most blatant failure of the accountability era in education reform), this editorial support for closing a school exposes the problems inherent in how we talk politically and publicly about schools.

The editorial describes the school being closed, Lincoln Middle-High School, with “inadequate,” “shortcomings,” and “under performing.”

As a rhetorical and policy strategy, the editorial frames Lincoln against nearby Wando High, characterized as “academically one of the top high schools in the state.”

So we have Lincoln as “bad school” and Wando as “good school”—making this seem more than credible: “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?”

Let’s examine that more carefully.

As the editorial notes, “Lincoln’s students are predominantly black, and some people who have felt the brunt of very real racism over the years see shuttering Lincoln as motivated by a lack of regard for a minority school and its students.”

Both Lincoln‘s and Wando‘s state report cards document how test-based data seem to reinforce that Lincoln is under performing and Wando is a top school.

However, a key element of how these schools are characterized is omitted—the poverty index for each school:

LINCOLN HIGH 94.67
WANDO HIGH 24.08

The editorial is mostly wrong-minded throughout—except for its concession that race and racism lie at the foundation of why SC has refused to address adequately our investment as a state in “other people’s children.”

“Bad” and “good” contribute to our coded political and public discourse that reflects our collective unwillingness to do what is required: reform directly education so that all students have the sorts of opportunities that we do guarantee to the most fortunate children among us.

Lincoln as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not “failing” but overburdened and under-resourced.

Wando as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not academically “top” because of the school, but because this context is far less burdened, gifted a tremendous amount of slack within which students and by proxy schools can succeed.

Of course, students at Lincoln deserve the same opportunities as the students at Wando—but to act as if this somehow has something to do with the physical plants, the school buildings, is inexcusable.

If we truly believe “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?” (and I am pretty sure we do not believe that), then we simply need the political and public will to make that happen right there in Lincoln—and there is nothing hard or magical about that.

Closing schools, renaming schools, taking over schools, changing standards and tests—these, and nearly every education reform policy we embrace, is so much foolishness, the indirect but fake change that reveals beneath the codes that we simply don’t give a damn about some children and some communities.

“Bad school” and “good school” keep the accusatory gaze on buildings, educators, and even children. What we need is to spend some time in front of a mirror—where the real problems lie.


See

An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement

A growing number of educators and scholars are confronting the essentially racist and classist roots of “grit”—not just that Duckworth’s research and popular books are misused, but that “grit” narratives and research are grounded in racist and classist biases that conflate effort and engagement with race and class privilege. [1]

When I maintain my position that this is not just about misusing “grit,” many—especially those invested in and profiting from “grit” publications and teacher training—refuse even to consider my claims, but a few who seem willing to step away from their own biases invariably ask a very important question: How does an educator reject the “grit” movement but maintain an atmosphere in the classroom that encourages effort and engagement, especially for our most vulnerable students (black, brown, and poor)?

I think I have failed to address this important question fully so let me do so here.

The first step is to set aside the assumption that low student achievement is primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is a consequence of mostly effort and engagement.

Resources for this change in perspectives can be found here and in Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Next, you must resist fatalism in two forms: (1) the fatalism at the root of “grit” being racist and classist—that life for black/brown and poor people is going to be hard so we need to make them extra “gritty” to survive and excel (washed through by the racist/classist assumptions black/brown and poor people are inherently less apt to have the effort and engagement we associate with white privilege), and (2) the fatalism of life is inherently unfair for black/brown and poor people so why bother to try at all?

Finally, to that second form of fatalism, the key is to honor effort and engagement as ends unto themselves and not means to some other ends or as a magic elixir for overcoming social inequity.

The very ugly consequence of championing “grit” with uncritical missionary zeal is that the students most often targeted—racial minorities and the poor—are soon to learn that their “grit” will get them less than the gift of white privilege for other people who show even less effort and engagement as they have worked to acquire:

fig_2Table 2 copy

rich black poor white prison

 

access to good jobs race gender

The “grit” movement is racist, classist, and counter to the very effort we seem to be making to support the value of effort and engagement in a meritocracy (which isn’t even close to existing).

However, in admitting these facts, we must not then slip into an equally corrosive fatalism that allows teachers and students simply to throw up their collective hands and give up.

While rejecting the “grit” movement, all educators and anyone working with children must remain committed to giving the young a fair and honest perspective on the inherent value in effort and engagement while resisting the urge to make promises we cannot keep about the outcomes of effort and engagement in an inequitable society.


[1] See Ethan Ris at The Answer Sheet and his Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept, in which he details:

This paper seeks to apply longitudinal discourse analysis to the AngloAmerican conversation about grit. Examining the history of grit reveals more than the simple fact that this character trait has had a long life. The “usefulness” noted in this paper’s title refers to the way in which language and rhetoric are employed to “legitimize relations of organized power” (Habermas, 1967, in Wodak and Meyer, 2009, p. 10). In other words, the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy. This phenomenon does not require malevolence on the part of its enactors. In fact, it can coexist with perfectly benign intentions.

While I think his claim that a historical analysis of the use of the term “grit” discounts arguments the term has racist implications is flawed, his analysis is excellent and important in this discussion.