Category: Education

South Carolina Changes Scale, Shocked at Same Outcomes

Education reform in South Carolina—just like the rest of the U.S.—suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: SC has changed the standards and high-stakes tests during thirty years of accountability about seven times, but the outcomes continue to be disappointing.

This proves that even in the South we are immune to our own cleverness: You can weigh a pig, but it won’t make the pig fatter.

The education reform version of that is that you can keep changing the tests, but the scores are going to tell you the same thing.

Deanna Pan, as a consequence, offers this “sky is falling” of the moment about public schools in SC, Only 14 percent of S.C. graduates are ready for college, according to ACT [1]:

Results on the ACT college entrance exam show recent South Carolina high school graduates are woefully unprepared for college, despite their ambitions for postsecondary education.

Only 14 percent of 51,000 students tested statewide who graduated this year met the ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks in all four of the exam’s subject areas — English, math, science and reading — yet 83 percent of test takers indicated they wanted to go on to college.

Even more staggering, just 2 percent of black students met the ACT’s benchmarks in all four sub-tests, compared with 9 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of whites and 33 percent of Asians.

After I talked with Pan by phone for 15-20 minutes, here is what made it to her article:

Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, said these results should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Without multiple years of testing data to compare with this year’s batch of scores, he said it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly about the performance of the state’s black students who disproportionately attend high-poverty schools with less access to advanced curriculum and veteran teachers.

“All standardized testing is still extremely biased by race, social class and gender,” Thomas said. “(These results) are more of a reflection of systemic problems, not with students.”

Just for clarities sake—since several charter school advocates took to Twitter to attack me by misrepresenting the above in order to promote charter schools, which annually prove to be no better than traditional public schools in SC—my caution focuses on interpreting ACT scores from one year of data after SC has over the past few years adopted Common Core and the related tests, dropped Common Core, renamed what are essentially Common Core standards to look as if we have our own state standards, and then adopted ACT as our annual testing.

In other words, my concern about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores includes the following:

  • The data are certainly depressed due to the curricular/standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • Virtually all shifts to new high-states standardized tests necessarily begin with a drop in scores; and thus, my point about the need to wait for several years of data.

However, my key point of emphasis, regretfully, during my interview with Pan was omitted: The ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, tests scores in the U.S. (notably our demoralizing residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the single most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with misnomers such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability mandates, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, then, I am not trivializing that these current ACT scores paint a grim picture about SC education—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I am emphasizing that we did not need yet more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity is cheating those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the ideology of the education reformers, including those committed to accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses the root causes directly and all of which increase the actual problems.

As Paul Gorski explains:

It also is why as a teacher educator I attend to ideology. No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007)….

Just as importantly, what realities does deficit ideology obscure and to what are we not responding when we respond through deficit ideology? Can we expect to eradicate outcome disparities most closely related to the barriers and challenges experienced by people experiencing poverty by ignoring those barriers and challenges – the symptoms of economic injustice?

The lamented results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation, but the callous responses by some who say poverty is an excuse are predictable and remain inexcusable.

The implication of weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. That implication is about the need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when some schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must address a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

In short, instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impacts negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need social reform that erases food, health, and work insecurity, and we need education reform that addresses equity of opportunity (for vulnerable students that includes access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests.

If anyone needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students, that is news and cringe worthy.

Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity?


[1] Let’s take a glance at what may be meant by taking this data with a grain of salt.

First, while poverty correlates strongly with standardized test scores, no one claims it is a perfect correlation. If you want to suggest that Tennessee calls into question SC’s low scores, you have to acknowledge that Nevada makes SC scores look quite differently. So only highlighting the TN/SC comparison is the discredited practice of cherry-picking (don’t trust people who cherry pick).

Next, among these 20 states we have no clarification on (1) how many years has the state been using this ACT test (the more years, the higher the scores, typically [reliability]), and (2) how well does this test correlate with what teachers have taught the students over 10-11 years of schooling [validity] (most of which could not have been correlated with this test).

Therefore, ACT test scores tell us about socioeconomic status, race, gender, and test validity/reliability—all of which are not about student learning, teacher quality, or school quality.

Ultimately, however, low ACT scores in SC this year are well within the historical data from every single different standardized test we have ever implemented. That is the lesson—one that I detail above we have no urge to address.

Average composite scores by states requiring ACT (see page 14 here) || Poverty Rank/Percentage

Minnesota 21.1 || 7/ 11.4%

Illinois 20.8  || 24/14.3%

[National Composite Score 20.8]

Colorado 20.6  ||  13/12.1%

Wisconsin 20.5  ||  18/13.2%

Michigan 20.3  || 33/16.2%

Montana 20.3  ||  27/15.2%

North Dakota 20.3  || 5/11.1%

Missouri 20.2  || 30/15.5%

Utah 20.2  12/11.8%

Arkansas 20.2  || 46/18.7%

Kentucky 20.0  || 47/19%

Wyoming 20.0  || 3/10.6%

Tennessee 19.9 || 41/18.2%

Louisiana 19.5  || 49/19.9%

Alabama 19.1  || 48/19.2%

North Carolina 19.1  || 39/17.2%

Hawaii 18.7  ||  9/11.5%

South Carolina 18.5  || 40/17.9%

Mississippi 18.4  || 51/21.9%

Nevada 17.7  || 29/15.4%

Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

The Post and Courier: Get real for reform by ending ‘get tough’ school discipline

Get real for reform by ending ‘get tough’ school discipline

[See original submission with hyperlinks included below]

Reforming School Discipline Policies Must Recognize Racial Inequity

P.L. Thomas

A recent Post and Courier editorial argues: “[school] is…not a place where children should be labeled criminals on a regular basis. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Charleston County schools.”

Just as Richland 2 (Columbia) addressed in 2014, Charleston is now committed to reforming discipline policies in schools that have resulted in significant imbalances in how students are treated, worst of which is that often those practices criminalize students of color disproportionately.

Education reform has been prominent in South Carolina and across the U.S. since the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably with the accountability movement based on academic standards and high-stakes testing. Along with a “get-tough” attitude about academics—such as instituting exit exams—public schools have also increasingly embraced “get-tough” approaches to student behavior—“no excuses” philosophies and zero tolerance policies, for example.

Over the past thirty or so years, however, doubling down again and again on accountability as well as discipline has not created the outcomes promised, but has resulted in many unintended negative consequences.

Exit exams as gatekeepers in school and student accountability as well as popular policies such as grade retention based on test scores have proven to be extremely harmful, especially for vulnerable populations of students (poor, black/brown, and special needs students and English language learners).

While Charleston continues to struggle with education reform targeting academics, the city has also been the epicenter of the larger national challenge to recognize concerns about policing and racial tensions—with the shooting of Walter Scott and the heinous massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

To reform school discipline, we must admit, is to confront a subset of the wider race problem with mass incarceration and police shootings. If our public schools are to be change agents for our society, they must be unlike the culture and communities they serve.

Charleston, then, is making a wise and important decision to reform discipline policies in the district, but additionally, this move requires that political leaders and the public are well educated about the realities of racial inequities in school discipline.

Those lessons must include the following:

  • In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
  • Racial inequities in school discipline begin in prekindergarten, and have lingering negative consequences for students, including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and higher drop-out rates.
  • Researchalso shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. In fact, Kenrya Rankin Naasel reports: “When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.”
  • Black children are viewed asbeing much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Educationargues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
  • Police in the hallways of schools has proven to be more likely to criminalize students than to create safer learning environments.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced the U.S. to confront some hard truths about lingering racial inequity, and addressing discipline policies in Charleston along with continuing to reform academic opportunities for students is yet another set of hard racial truths for us to examine and overcome.

Charleston educational leaders should be commended for this needed move, but the way forward has to be informed by the available research and then grounded in a firm commitment to create the sorts of equitable and rich school experiences that South Carolina has for too long neglected to provide for poor and black/brown students.

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin offers a powerful guiding principle for all education reform: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”

Our “get-tough” approaches to academics and discipline are damaging our students, and we must find better ways to serve all our students.


See Also

Greenville News: COMMENTARY: Are black children criminalized in schools?

Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

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

Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:

Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.

But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.

Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.

The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:

According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.

However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.

First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology [1], as examined by Paul Gorksi:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.

Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.

This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.

As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”

This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.

One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.

The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”

Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).

As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.

In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.

We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).

The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.

The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.

And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.

Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:

Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.

The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”


[1] See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).

Bizarro Politics and Fearing the “Other”

For decades, I was wasting my votes in South Carolina by aggressively voting against Republicans. I really never voted for a Democrat, but I certainly found all the Republicans so vile that I felt a moral duty to vote against them.

Then in 2005, I was sitting in a hotel in New Orleans just months before Katrina hit and watching an interview on TV with George Carlin. Prompted by Charlie Rose about the 1992 election, Carlin explained that he was a lifelong non-voter.

Since then, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carlin, I have been a non-voter and very openly not a Republican, Democrat, or (the silliest of all) Independent.

With the rise of Trump, I also resisted addressing this new and unprecedented level of insanity in mainstream politics: Trump is a bizarro cartoon extreme of everything wrong with partisan politics and the U.S. (although he certainly isn’t an extreme conservative, which I address below).

Recently, I have broken my Golden Rule of not mentioning the fools who live by the glory of being mentioned, even when being called fools (again, Trump is the king of that crap).

I also have been forced to reconsider partisan politics—most disturbingly, to acknowledge that if the Republicans had nominated Jeb Bush, they would have had a very powerful leg to stand on in terms of refuting Hillary Clinton over ethics and honesty.

Yes, we all could have quibbled over policy (I detest Jeb Bush’s policy, especially the dumpster fire of education policy in Florida), but Jeb Bush proved himself one of the most honest candidates in the primary campaign, and Hillary Clinton has a legitimate credibility problem (one that is typical of almost all candidates and only easily exposed by an unusually ethical, honest candidate).

And while there is a long and disturbing history (especially in the South) of major blocks of voters voting against their best interests, the Trump phenomenon, again, is a truly extreme example of that paradox.

I have begun to understand this better after seeing a photo with a news story about Trump: A line of young white males all wearing “build the wall” t shirts mimicking Pink Floyd’s The Wall (possibly in the top three most offensive things I have seen in the campaign as a Pink Floyd fan).

Trump has risen along a continuum of Republicans who have maintained the religious right’s support despite multiple infidelities and divorces, as well as amassing wealth that clearly contradicts the whole camel through an eye of a needle idea of reaching heaven.

Trump also has seemingly increased the loyalty of poor and working class whites—despite his being the sort of business man who has exploited and ignored those populations to amass and squander his wealth. (We worship the wealthy in the U.S. and conveniently ignore that wealth is always built on the backs of workers who are left out of that wealth loop.)

I don’t want to catalogue the many contradictions between who Trump is and those subgroups who support him, but it is without question that Trump maintains support from many stakeholders who are somehow putting aside that he does not represent them in order to remain rabidly behind him.

Along with the “my team” aspect of partisan politics in the U.S. (a certain number of Republicans and Democrats, for example, would vote for anyone on their “team,” even if we simply swapped candidates), I believe there is one extremely disturbing common denominator cementing the Trump wall: fearing the “other.”

Trump has garnered the support of the anti-government Republican party with mantras of “I can do this for you” and with plans such as the federal government building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (huge time and tax money commitments from the “less government” crowd?).

The “build the wall” refrain of the Trump campaign is simultaneously the most irrational and most compelling and solidifying aspect of his run.

The Newt Gingrich moment when he refused to acknowledge violent crime is down in the U.S. by insisting that it is more important that the public believes there is more crime—this is the “wall” element writ large.

Trump is the orange-faced, wild-haired Clown Leader of Fear—a very bad script plagiarized from a much better Stephen King novel.

The fear of the “other” feeds Islamophobia, racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, etc., and can be maintained only through ignorance and delusion.

And mainstream cloaked-racist refrains such as “black-on-black crime” have created the foundation upon which the Trump Circus has been built.

Some continue to argue that we must not demonize Trump supporters as stupid, but I believe that reasonable call is deeply flawed.

Do poor and working class whites have reason to be disillusioned? Of course, but that doesn’t excuse there misinformed responses.

White high school drop outs have the same employment opportunities as blacks with some college (see here page 8), but the angry poor/working class voters supporting Trump will not admit their white privilege, and refuse to address the complicated facts of a racist U.S. society.

So the ultimate paradox of the rise of Heir Clown Trump is that “build the wall” is the real unifying theme that discredits his “Make America Great Again”—because, if we were informed at all, we may be compelled to see just what our country’s values are regarding the “other”:

Liberty Enlightening the World poster

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Today in Bad Edujournalism: Putting Lipstick on the Test-Prep Pig

I often have to make sure I didn’t accidentally click on an article from The Onion, but, once again, this is actually in Education WeekStandardized-Test Prep Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf.

And the real clincher is the author: “Travis Coleman has been teaching standardized-test prep for more than 10 years and is the LSAT curriculum manager at Magoosh Online Test Prep in Berkeley, Calif.”

So, let me understand this. A test-prep careerist is given a platform in the top education publication in the U.S. to defend test-prep?

The commentary sets out to refute Sal Khan’s attack on the test-prep industry, establishing a dichotomy between test-prep that addresses “content” and test-prep that addresses “test-taking skills.”

First, let’s not gloss over Khan, whose homophone name captures perfectly what the Khan Academy is, a con.

Just as one example, Karim Kai Ani offers a substantive critique of the poor quality of the Khan Academy math videos, concluding:

Unfortunately, the media hype surrounding Khan Academy has created a level of expectation far beyond what it – indeed, what any person or website – could ever reasonably deliver. Reporters have confused journalism with sycophantism, and the entire narrative has become a head-scratching example of the suspension of common sense.

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done.

But the Khan Academy in cahoots with the David Coleman SAT is an even greater con.

Now, to return to Travis Coleman’s defense of test-taking skills test-prep.

There is a serious core problem with high-stakes standardized testing that should be addressed: When a lack of test-taking skills lowers standardized test scores or when gaining test-taking skills raises test scores, we should respond not by endorsing test-prep, but by recognizing and then rejecting high-stakes testing as inherently flawed.

High-stakes standardized testing already is powerfully skewed by social class, race, and gender. Access to test-taking skills test prep—which is commercialized—is a subset of the social class bias of high-stakes standardized tests.

The only way anyone can justify test-prep of any kind is to remain trapped in the corrosive high-stakes standardized test paradigm. If we step back from that, then, Travis Coleman’s defense falls apart entirely—as does the devil’s deal between Khan and David Coleman.

So let’s end with a thought experiment (one augmented by Herb Childress’s excellent Seventeen Reasons Why Football Is Better Than High School).

We decide playing musical instruments now should be along side math and literacy in our core curriculum, requiring standards and, of course, high-stakes standardized tests.

A test is designed, multiple-choice like the SAT and most of the standards-based testing across the U.S.

We provide all the children test-prep, and scores skyrocket.

Of course, no time was spent playing instruments, and no child can play any—except for the few who do so on their own time.

Or, to focus on Childress’s argument, every Friday night, high school football teams line up across from each other on the gridiron, each team neatly in rows of desks, and take multiple-choice tests to determine the best high school football teams!

Both of these scenarios are ludicrous—until you consider that band and football are extracurricular activities, which by their nature are deemed less important than the core curriculum.

Why, then, do we demand more of children and young people in band and football (in both, they must do the real thing, as Childress points out, as “a public performance”) than we do of students learning math and literacy?

I would argue, it is a con—pure and simply—fostered by the education industry that depends on teaching and testing materials (commercialized), and thus,the test-prep pig feeding the real big bad wolf, high-stakes testing—that has blown the school house down.

That students need all sorts of test-prep to do well on high-stakes standardized testing is yet more proof we must abandon high-stakes standardized testing.

Putting lipstick in the test-prep pig cannot camouflage that fact.