My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

As many have highlighted, the media turns to almost anyone except educators when dealing with education topics such as evaluating and paying teachers (ask an economist), teaching reading (ask a psychologist), expanding charter schools (ask a political scientist), or creating national standards (which apparently requires a degree in philosophy).

Therefore based on my experiences as a student (nobody asks a student about anything), as a public school classroom teacher (nobody asks a teacher anything), and as an “ivory tower” academic (really? ask a professor?) who graduated from state schools with an undergraduate and two graduate degrees in education, I have now begun work on my next book:

New Book2

I am eager to speak with publishers, and any media outlet interested in a guest Op-Ed or an interview!

[insert cricket noise]

Finally, (a Little) More Room for Teachers’ Voices in the Debate

Since I have taken the NYT and its Room for Debate to task for the near absence of teachers’ voices in mainstream media examinations of education, I think I must highlight this Room for Debate: Is Improving Schools All About Money?

Two classroom ELA teachers, Nicole Amato and Yvonne Mason, offer excellent perspectives, and Lisa Delpit provides a powerful argument as well:

I remain baffled at the obsession in the media with economist Eric Hanushek, who continues to push misleading and discredited claims about teacher quality and educational funding.

But the media also sees no problem with Daniel Willingham, psychologist, posing as a reading expert.

So I want to acknowledge that the NYT has given some space, but there is still much ground left to cover.

See Also

Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

Education Activism for Equity: On Common Core, Pearson, and Race

Likely as a consequence of being a critical educator and my own proclivities as a non-joiner skeptic, I remain mostly an outsider in the education reform debates—although I am a 30+-year educator and an established blogger/public voice on education.

Not addressing only specific, recent debates but prompted by my own witnessing of the evolving (and muddled) Pearson monitoring controversy and how that seems as problematic as the much longer (and equally muddled) Common Core debate, I posted the following Tweets earlier today:

On Common Core (see here, here, and here) and Pearson monitoring (see here and here), I cannot be placed neatly into any major camp of the ongoing debates.

And throughout my blogging and public work on education reform, I forefront race and racism as well as poverty—noting that addressing race in the U.S. immediately prompts both harsh reactions and stunning silence.

As more context, I am regularly confronted as a union shill and union basher, depending on the detractor; although I am not now and have never been a member of a union, living and working my entire life in a right-to-work state, but simultaneously support unionism while acknowledging that organized unions (NEA and AFT) have mostly failed education.

That same pattern occurs within politics since many assume I am a Democrat (I am not) and both partisan sides bristle at my equal-opportunity criticism of mainstream politicians’ failures related to education.

None of this is intended as a pity party or a pat on my own back, but to note I am living, and thus witnessing from a privileged white/male vantage point, what I am concerned about in this post: Even—or notably among—good people with whom I consider myself in allegiance on educational goals, education activism for equity too often fails by slipping into the wrong allegiances (people and organizations) and not the ultimate goal, equity.

To understand this, I think we must return to race and other aspects of marginalized people and voices. Three powerful situations must be acknowledged:

  • Civil rights organizations with black leadership speaking out in favor of high-stakes testing and accountability.
  • Blacks identified as supporting Common Core.
  • Blacks associated with strong support for charter schools.

As well, Andre Perry has offered two important examinations of the white/black dynamic in education reform:

To understand the racial divide in the education reform debate (why do blacks support many of the policies strongly rejected by a mostly white education reform counter-movement?) requires the same considerations necessary to unpack the often misguided Common Core and Pearson monitoring debates: Simplistic analysis of white and black support fails to confront the inherent problems with white privilege and fully expand the important contributions of minority voices.

As I have examined about black support of charter schools in the context of mass incarceration, I want to flesh out the three bullet points above by arguing that all three must include “as mechanisms for educational equity.”

In other words, it is misleading to say that civil rights or minority populations embrace policy A or practice B as if those policies and practices have no goals attached to them. The support must be read as “We support X in order to accomplish Y”—and it is that Y which is vital to emphasize, educational and social equity for minorities and the impoverished.

And not to belabor a specific topic, I have continued to reject Common Core as a mechanism of educational equity because the evidence suggests:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

And that brings me back to my morning Twitter flurry.

Education activism for equity must not succumb to mere missionary zeal, and certainly fails when people and organizations trump the goal of equity or when winning the debate destroys the actual reason for the debate.

As I noted above, education activism for equity has failed in those ways—just as have the NEA, AFT, and Democrat Party (all of which I highlight since they are associated with being “liberal” and supposedly for both public education and economic/educational equity).

And all of this is very disappointing and disheartening—just as being alienated and ignored among those with whom I have strong allegiances is very disappointing and disheartening.

But again, this isn’t about me, although I do feel an obligation to bear witness to the failures among those I personally respect and publicly share ideologies—even when I disagree with them.

And I have failed along the way to this post, often—and will likely fail again.

But I stand by the Twitter flurry above, I stand by the unpopular positions I hold about Common Core and Pearson monitoring—despite the tensions those stands cause specific people and organizations, many of whom also pursue educational equity.

Teaching and activism are compelling pursuits for me because they both demand that we rise above personal and organizational commitments, that we rise to our individual commitment to humanity: They are all our children.

Teaching and activism require our humility, and a capacity for listening and learning, for admitting when we are wrong and moving forward.

And in both roles, we risk ourselves in order to find ourselves and the world we imagine can and should be.

See Also

Avoiding Patricia Arquette Moments in Education Reform

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

Education Reform as the New Misogyny: A Reader

If You Don’t Think, Why Should I listen?

Often, my high school students would draft a sentence that began “I don’t think,” and I would highlight or circle the construction and then comment: “If you don’t think, why should I listen?”

This was a typical ploy of my feedback on student writing—one designed to develop in my students a purposefulness and care for not only the words they chose, but also the assembling of those words.

For “I don’t think the movie was good,” we would discuss the placement of “not,” recasting as “I think the movie was not good” or simply “bad,” and then “I think the movie was cliche and condescending to the viewers.”

But I was relentless (and still am) about what word choices and sentence formations actually stated (“I could care less”) versus what was meant (“I couldn’t care less”): “I want to kiss you badly” isn’t a very good invitation to romance, I’d explain.

We argued about “not” and “only” placements, but also I emphasized the lazy openings of sentences: “Flying low over the fields, the cows were startled by the plane.” So we could examine dangling and misplaced modifiers as well as the inherent dangers of passive voice; eventually, hitting on the real danger of passive voice—the absent agent: “Documents were shredded.”

Mostly, for my students, class time was about playing with language as readers and writers. It endeared my students to Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut—Atwood’s wordplay and Vonnegut’s sparse snark.

Words are how humans define the world, and how we are equipped to re-define the world.

And that is why I am so persistent about the importance of careful, purposeful language—especially for young people.

“I Don’t Think” v. “I Don’t Believe”

During my first 18 years as a high school English teacher in my rural Upstate South Carolina home town, I was committed to confronting the provincialism that had plagued me—and the realization that education had changed my life by changing my mind (or more accurately, education had realigned my mind with my soul).

My wonderful parents gave me life, but writers—many black writers, notably Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin—saved my life.

Currently, I am easing into my second decade teaching at a selective liberal arts college, also in the rural Upstate of SC, and the provincialism is different, but not absent.

While I had to confront “I don’t think” with my high schoolers, I am more often challenging “I don’t believe” with undergraduates.

In my education foundations course, I engage the students in the lingering controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. The students at my university are high-achieving students who tend to be religiously and politically conservative and from economically and racially privileged backgrounds.

I must note here, that for 30+ years, I have taught overwhelmingly wonderful young people, and I must stress that all young people have histories, misconceptions, and home-based baggage to overcome.

This is what it means to go from childhood to adulthood. But for some of us, that journey and the baggage are uglier than for others.

During the teaching of evolution discussion I witness each semester some patterns:

  • Students often make this statement: “I don’t believe in evolution.”
  • When I note evolution is a credible theory, students rarely can define accurately the term “theory” (confusing it with “hypothesis,” and even “guessing”).
  • And when I ask what evolution means (and thus what they don’t believe), students typically misrepresent evolution (something akin to “I don’t believe humans came from monkeys”).

And then, I must admit, that I am fairly certain that despite the care taken (and the time, including viewing and discussing the documentary Flock of Dodos) to examine terminology (“hypothesis,” “theory,” “law”) and the students’ misconceptions, many if not most of those students claiming “I don’t believe in evolution” hold that same view afterward—as well as their belief that “both sides” of the evolution debate should be taught in biology, despite the problem with that stance being discredited in our discussions.

Yes, “I don’t think” is both a sloppy construction and a real problem behind what many people embrace—because in many instances people cling to “I believe” without having challenged those beliefs, and with little regard for evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

For those of us in academia, claims and evidence are a way of discourse and the foundations of knowing the world.

However, in the so-called real world, unsupported and unsupportable claims have a great deal of power.

And as I am often overwhelmed with my recalcitrant but very academically bright students, I am equally discouraged by the impact of my public work, most of which addresses education, poverty, and racism—phenomena awash in “I believe.”

Is teacher quality the greatest factor in student achievement? Well, no.

Is education the great equalizer? Well, no.

Is the U.S. a post-racial country? Well, no.

This could go on for quite a while— pairing the entrenched commitments to charter schools, merit pay, school choice, etc., against the substantial body of evidence showing those commitments are ill founded.

There is great irony in all this.

Education could be the key to overcoming this problem, but when many people start their comments with “I don’t think” they are unwittingly admitting exactly what is wrong with the claim that follows.

Teacher Motivation: Context and Culture

Catherine Joynson and Ottoline Leyser’s The culture of scientific research identifies the motivation of scientists, which:

provide[s] additional insights into how they view research, and the majority of the survey respondents clearly chose a career in science in order to find out more about the world around them. When respondents were asked to rank phrases to describe what they believe motivates them in their work, the top three were:

  1. Improving my knowledge and understanding
  2. Making scientific discoveries for the benefit of society
  3. Satisfying my curiosity

And then, they confront the impact of competition:

High levels of competition in scientific research emerged as a strong theme running through all the project activities. Applying for funding is thought to be very competitive by the majority of the survey respondents (94 per cent), as is applying for jobs and promotions (77 per cent). Around nine in ten think making discoveries and gaining peer recognition is quite or very competitive.

High levels of competition for jobs and funding in scientific research are believed by survey respondents both to bring out the best in people and to create incentives for poor quality research practices, less collaboration, and headline chasing [emphasis added]. For example, behaviours such as rushing to finish and publish research, employing less rigorous research methods and increased corner-cutting in research were raised by 29 per cent of survey respondents who commented on the effects of competition on scientists.

Immediately this analysis reminded me of the increasing political calls for weeding out “bad” teachers and concurrently rewarding good teachers, notably from the right but also from the left, including support for value-added methods (VAM) for teacher evaluation and retention as well as merit pay.

While simplistic calls for rewarding good teachers are politically popular, they fail to confront the inherent negative consequences and to acknowledge the research base on what exactly motivates teachers.

Teaching and learning are highly sensitive to the same problems noted above about science: VAM and merit pay create competitive cultures in schools, discouraging collaboration and incentivizing teachers to view their students as tools of success (and thus, creating winners and loser when we claim a goal of everyone winning).

Research shows that merit pay for teachers is harmful:

Some researchers have warned, however, that merit pay may change the relationships between teachers and students: poor students may pose threats to the teacher’s rating and rewards [emphasis added] (Johnson 1986). Another concern is that merit pay plans may encourage teachers to adjust their teaching down to the program goals, setting their sights no higher than the standards (Coltham 1972).

Odden and Kelley reviewed recent research and experience and concluded that individual merit and incentive pay programs do not work and, in fact, are often detrimental (1997). A number of studies have suggested that merit pay plans often divide faculties, set teachers against their administrators, are plagued by inadequate evaluation methods, and may be inappropriate for organizations such as schools that require cooperative, collaborative work [emphasis added] (Lawler 1983).

Evidence on VAM reveals similar warnings:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (p. 24)

So what does motivate teachers?:

Frase identified two sets of factors that affect teachers’ ability to perform effectively: work context factors (the teaching environment, and work content factors (teaching)….

Work context factors are those that meet baseline needs. They include working conditions such as class size, discipline conditions, and availability of teaching materials; the quality of the principal’s supervision; and basic psychological needs such as money, status, and security.

In general, context factors clear the road of the debris that block effective teaching. In adequate supply, these factors prevent dissatisfaction. Even the most intrinsically motivated teacher will become discouraged if the salary doesn’t pay the mortgage….

Work content factors are intrinsic to the work itself. They include opportunities for professional development, recognition, challenging and varied work, increased responsibility, achievement, empowerment, and authority. Some researchers argue that teachers who do not feel supported in these states are less motivated to do their best work in the classroom (NCES 1997).

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) confirm that staff recognition, parental support, teacher participation in school decision making, influence over school policy, and control in the classroom are the factors most strongly associated with teacher satisfaction [emphasis added]. Other research concurs that most teachers need to have a sense of accomplishment in these sectors if they are to persevere and excel in the difficult work of teaching.

VAM, merit pay, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, “no excuses” ideologies, zero tolerance policies—these remain essential elements of education reform although they are likely to creates the worst possible contexts and cultures necessary for teaching and learning.

Top-down and technocratic approaches to school policy, which de-professionalize teaching and teachers, are creating harmful cultures in public schools, proving further that the partisan political control of education remains tone-deaf to evidence and educators.

Teachers, like scientists above, are already quite likely to have chosen the profession in order to serve others. VAM and merit pay destroy those initial reasons for teaching.

Political commitments to harmful policies suggest the real problem in education is the motivation of those political leaders, not teachers.

From Crenshaw to Hartsville: Race, Poverty, and Education Reform

In order to avoid the existential hell known as I-85 where morning commuters creep along bug-like in a daily Kafkan nightmare, I take winding backroads through the Upstate of South Carolina to my university.

Recently, I noticed a real estate sign advertising a new neighborhood with an added bright yellow sign above signaling, “RIVERSIDE SCHOOLS.”

Children in this housing development will attend, eventually, Riverside High, which is ranked 13th lowest of 237 SC high schools in the 2014 Poverty Index, has Excellent/Excellent ratings on the 2014 SC report card, and tests only 51/341 students on subsidized meals and 25/341 with limited English proficiency:

Riverside HS PI 2014

Riverside HS 2014 report card 1Among four other comparable high schools in the state, they all are rated Excellent:

Riverside HS schools like ours 2014Having placed student teachers at Riverside High, and knowing faculty there, I can attest that this is a wonderful school, and students are both supported and challenged.

The real estate sign struck me especially since I had viewed two new educational documentaries: Crenshaw, a film by activist Lena Jackson on the Los Angeles school, and 180 Days: Hartsville, focusing on two schools—Thornwell School for the Arts and West Hartsville Elementary School—along the infamous I-95 Corridor of Shame in my home state of SC.

While nearly 2500 miles apart and politically/culturally worlds apart, Los Angeles and Hartsville reflect powerful narratives about the intersections of race, poverty, and education reform. As well, they offer nuance to those intersections since Creshaw High is high-poverty, majority-minority in an urban setting while Hartsville’s elementary schools are high-poverty, majority-minorty in the rural South.

Before discussing each documentary separately, let me highlight what they share as entry points into reconsidering race, poverty, and education reform:

  • Public schools both serve and reflect the communities within which they sit.
  • Race and poverty significantly impact academic achievement, and thus, when schools, teachers, and students are labeled, ranked, and judged by test scores, high-poverty and majority-minority schools are disproportionately identified as “failing.”
  • Political leadership often expresses support for education and public schools, but implements policies that appear tone deaf to the communities they represent.
  • Education reform advocates ignore the failure of popular policies.
  • Demands of effort and not embracing excuses dominate political and educational rhetoric (despite ample evidence that effort is trumped by racism/classism).
  • Parents, students, and teachers are often passionate about education, regardless of economic status or race.

Crenshaw: Disenfranchising through Take Over Strategies

Crenshaw is, as David B. Cohen explains, a “cautionary tale” about school take overs narrowly and education reform built on accountability broadly.

Jackson does a wonderful job in 20 minutes introducing viewers to the students, parents, and teachers whose lives and learning/teaching are dramatically disrupted by converting Crenshaw High into a magnet school as part of a take over plan.

This film is an excellent introduction to how so-called good intentions of political education reform is not only insufficient, but also harmful.

The take over of Crenshaw disenfranchises the students, parents, and teachers highlighted in the documentary and exposes that political leadership (school board and Superintendent John Deasy) often fails to be culturally sensitive or appropriately responsive to the needs of the people they serve.

Ultimately, as in New Orleans, Crenshaw and the take over represent a failure to identify the sources of entrenched problems, to listen to the people whose lives are being impacted by policy, and to be open to alternative views of both problems and solutions.

Crenshaw High is now and has been for decades a reflection of deep and serious social inequity fueled by racism, classism, and an unresponsive political establishment.

Changing a school’s name, firing the adults who have dedicated their lives to students, and ignoring the parents of those students—these appear to be the worst possible actions available, and regretfully, what more and more political leaders seem determined to do.

Hartsville: It’s All about the Tests (I Mean, Children)

As a life-long resident of and career-long educator in SC, I have lived and witnessed the historical and lingering racism and poverty that scar our state and our schools.

In my education foundations and educational documentary courses, I show Corridor of Shame, and we examine issues related to pockets of poverty across SC and school funding.

I also highlight how problematic Corridor is as a documentary since it depends on maudlin music and slow-motion shots of children looking forlorn. The inequity along I-95 in SC needs no emotional appeal; the conditions are inexcusable, and any reasonable person can see that.

In that context, I was nervous about 180 Days: Hartsville—although I do trust and respect co-producer Sam Chaltain and feel that the documentary does offer a much more complex portrayal of education reform, race, and poverty in SC than Corridor.

Broadly, depending on how audiences interpret the narratives of the film, 180 Days: Hartsville challenges the effectiveness of accountability-based reform that focuses on in-school policies only.

That “depending,” however, is huge.

Yes, the two schools and the central family highlighted are wonderful and accurate representations of the huge challenges of public schools in a high-poverty community.

I find the educators, parents, and students extremely compelling and genuine—a tribute to the care taken with the film.

There are also moments that need to be paused, digested carefully: the burdens of working minimum-wage jobs, the pressures of being a child living in poverty and trying to succeed in school, the passion and compassion of educators, and the determination of a parent working two jobs and raising two children alone.

Statistics flashed on the screen and audio/video snippets of political rhetoric against cuts to education funding—these also demand greater critical consideration.

But I am left deeply concerned that too many viewers will not respond as I did to the relentless influence of testing the film captures throughout—because the film is also punctuated with adults expressing a “no excuses” mentality, again with the best intentions.

These educators are supportive and positive, but those qualities cannot temper the weight of testing that has become the end-all, be-all of public schooling—especially for our high-poverty, majority-minority schools.

Viewers watch a highly dedicated principal at Thornwell School for the Arts giving pep talks to entire grade levels of students as well as students preparing to take MAP tests, computerized commercial programs that give detailed and nearly immediate feedback and claim to be strongly correlated with high-stakes state testing.

Viewers also watch as students’ names are moved on a board in front of those students so that each child is listed under her/his status according to the tests.

The money and time spent on MAP and the public labeling of students—not to mention, Where are the arts?—should prompt us all to end the madness that is high-stakes accountability. But, again, I fear many viewers found the story compelling because the educators and students were working so hard, and are characterized as being uniquely successful.

And it is at that last point we must pause.

First, schools that are outliers are not evidence of any need for policy, or for any standard by which to judge all schools. Outliers are outliers for a reason.

But, as well, consider Thornwell School for the Arts 2014 school report card:

Thornwell 2014 report card

And how does Thornwell School for the Arts look against comparable schools across SC?:

Thornwell schools like ours 2014

While the film suggests nearly “miracle” outcomes, the school, in fact, continues to struggle under the burdens of poverty and race; as the classifications above show, the school is typical of schools with similar students.

The film highlights only one of the two ways in which SC evaluates schools—the annual state report card that has been in use for most of SC’s decades of accountability and the federal accountability report (in 2014, Thornwell School for the Arts received a B/86.7 and West Hartsville Elementary, a B/81.1).

Without context, and careful analysis of what data are being portrayed along with why and how (former Superintendent Mick Zais [R] manipulated the federal accountability reports in order to criss-cross the state to “prove” poverty doesn’t matter, for example), viewers are apt to fall under the impression that schools struggling against poverty just need to demand more from educators and children.

However, for me, the key scene is when the principal at West Hartsville Elementary must confront the tremendously complex issues surrounding Rashon, ones that are often outside the ability of the school or even his mother to control.

180 Days: Hartsville is a story of place. It is, like Crenshaw, a cautionary tale, but I suspect one easily misinterpreted.

I think the intent behind this film is to offer Hartsville as a model for education reform addressing race and poverty because the efforts of the educators and students are remarkable and community business has committed to addressing the complex elements of poverty in the area and schools.

However, the film actually reveals that accountability has failed SC and the entire U.S.

How?

The relentless and dehumanizing focus on data—as if people are somehow not involved.

Ultimately what connects Crenshaw in Los Angeles to two elementary schools in SC is this mostly ignored fact: political rhetoric and tone-deaf education policy are not curative but part of the disease.

Once again, there are no miracles—but there are very real and very harmful consequences to demanding the impossible from schools, educators, parents, and children who are ultimately the victims of the racism and poverty political leaders refuse to acknowledge or erase.

For Additional Reading

What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong in the First Place?, Bill Raden

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”

No Child Left Behind fails to work ‘miracles,’ spurs cheating

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference: Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F

Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts