Rubrics, they argue, ultimately fail complex human behaviors such as writing. While rubrics facilitate statistical aspects of measuring human behaviors (such as teaching and learning), by doing so, they also tend to erode the quality of the very behaviors being measured.
As a writing teacher, I can confirm Wilson’s and Kohn’s critiques that student writing conforming to a rubric and thus deemed “proficient” or “excellent” can be and often is quite bad writing. Rubric-based labels such as “proficient” reflect compliance to the rubric, not writing quality.
Wilson, in fact, has demonstrated this by revising a professional and beautiful piece of writing by Sandra Cisneros so that is conforms to a computer-graded system’s criteria for high-quality writing. The result was more than disturbing with the revised work substantially worse but better correlated with what the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has deemed “good.”
While Wilson’s experiment focuses on computer-graded writing, the basis of that is having a generic rubric to determine writing quality, and thus, here we begin to investigate why rubric-driven evaluation of complex human behavior always fails:
- Rubrics reduce the unpredictable to the prescribed.
- To be practical, rubrics often attempt to be generic enough to cover huge categories—such as writing and teaching—and thus failing the reality that poetry writing is significantly distinct from journalism or that teaching second grade is significantly distinct from teaching high school physics.
- When rubrics use terminology that is broad enough to address those varieties, they are useless due to being too vague; when rubrics use terminology that is specific, they are useless because they are unduly prescriptive. If the learning objective is jumping rope, if proficiency is “students jump well,” we have no idea what “well” means, and if proficiency is “students jump 10 times without missing,” that 10 becomes all that matters. In other words, in both cases, complying to the rubric ultimately supersedes the actual jumping rope.
- Rubrics replace substantive feedback conducive to learning, and in fact, stagnates learning and reduces all assessment as summative.
- As with high-stakes testing, high-stakes rubrics connected to course grades and/or as part of state accountability systems carry the weight of authority—shifting that authority from teachers and students to the rubric itself and the bureaucracy behind it.
SC’s version of the NIET rubric, as I discussed, is marred by being unmanageable due to its length and inadequate due to the inordinate amount of terminology that is too vague (and again, if we address that vagueness, we still have a flawed instrument that is all prescription).
While going through a first session of training in the rubric, I witnessed the greatest problem with using generic rubrics to determine teacher quality: a very bad literacy lesson was pronounced at the high end of “proficient” by how it conformed to the rubric, but the lesson was in fact terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive—as well, it likely eroded significantly the students’ passion for and interest in reading and literacy.
Adopting and implementing a new teacher quality rubric, however, have been committed primarily to training those who will evaluate teachers so that the assessors are familiar with the rubric and the endorsed process; and then, above all else, a central goal is to produce inter-rater reliability with a rubric that NIET and others have already deemed valid.
In other words, this is a statistical enterprise—not an adventure in teaching and learning.
Lost in the technocratic orgy about validity, reliability, and the all-things scientific, we have made the mistake confronted by John Dewey:
What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)
The irony here, of course, is that Dewey is one of the seminal voices for education being scientific; however, I cannot imagine his expecting this reductive outcome.
All aspects of teaching and learning are poisoned by our misguided pursuit of a very narrow version of “scientific” that has been subsumed by the bureaucratic and turned into pseudo-science.
What avail is it to label a teacher proficient, if in the process the teaching is terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive, if in the process the students are rendered lifeless and uninspired as well?
In the 2006 film Idiocracy, the U.S. five centuries into the future is suffering crippling crop shortages due to a dust bowl that the main character (a survivor of suspended animation from the present of the film’s opening, around 2005), Private Joe Bauers, discovers is human-made since the nation of idiots has been irrigating those crops with a Gatorade-like sports drink.
This science fiction satire has experienced a resurgence due to many pundits associating the rise of Trump with the film’s extrapolation about humanity becoming more and more a nation of idiots, but for those of us in education, Idiocracy speaks to the most recent era of education reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing.
The human-made dust bowl is the result of an initial false analogy: If the sports drink, they reasoned, is a powerful fluid for human hydration, then it must be an ideal solution to struggling crops needing hydration.
If we unpack this idiotic logic a bit more, we must add that even the initial idea—sports drinks filled with sugar and salt as powerful hydration fluids—is mostly a false belief based on a great deal of clever marketing and gullibility in the consumers.
Before Bauer forces this future of idiots to reimagine their problem in order to rethink their solution, the status quo of hydrating crops with sports drink continues along with the puzzlement among the idiots about why nothing is improving.
So let’s do a little thought experiment with that film in mind.
First, consider this from Rebecca Smith:
In the late 1800s, the United States was feeling the impact of the industrial revolution. Influenced by Taylorism and the desire for scientific management, statistics and measurement were evolving as objective methods used to evaluate and systematically organize information. Education was swept up in the measurement and statistical movement. Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where ‘knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity’ (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision….
To [Thordike], the connection between science, measurement, and human behavior was clear (Cremin, 1964). Lewis Terman published the Binet-Simon IQ Test in 1916; this test provided the context for psychologists to assess abilities, explain differences in students’ performance, and improve schools (Chapman, 1988). Standardized academic tests measure performance in the areas of handwriting, maths, and reading. Data from these tests offered superintendents, teachers, parents, or pupils ‘guidance in many different sorts of decisions and actions’ including ‘the fate of pupils, the value of methods, and the achievement of school systems’ (Thorndike, 1918, pp. 19, 22). Although Thorndike used the term ‘product’ instead of ‘data’, concepts such as rigor, reliability, and precision became part of educational discourse, measuring unseen changes in human beings. Intelligence had become objectified in numbers. The quantification of children’s intelligence, demographic characteristics, and school performance resulted in columns of numbers compared, contrasted, and evaluated in the United States. As the scientific gaze turned towards children, they became classified, compared, and evaluated according to numbers (Cannella, 1997). (pp. 3, 4)
Just a decade after this film and almost a century after Thorndike, in 2016, consider this:
In the latest international comparison of student achievement, public schools in the United States ranked no better than 24th in the world. But the public schools of Massachusetts had few peers.
Perhaps Massachusetts has something to teach the rest of the nation.
Well, unless you listen to Massachusetts, where researchers determined that two-thirds of the state’s effort at education reform has been a failure:
The evidence we have gathered strongly suggests that two of the three major “reforms” launched in the wake of the 1993 law — high-stakes testing and Commonwealth charter schools — have failed to deliver on their promises.
On the other hand, the third major component of the law, providing an influx of more than $2 billion in state funding for our schools, had a powerfully positive impact on our classrooms. But we will show that, after two decades, the formula designed to augment and equalize education funding is no longer up to the task.
So what we have here is an idiocracy of education reform, a failure of imagination to reconsider the problem and then to rethink solutions.
The U.S. need not idealize Finland or Massachusetts—or let’s not forget in 1962, it was the Swiss.
And the relentless commitment to accountability based on ever-new standards and ever-new tests is no different than the idiots continuing to hydrate crops with sports drink.
Like sports drinks, testing is inherently a sham, and our refusal to step away from a paradigm that has never worked despite countless efforts at making it work is our own version of a very real and current Idiocracy.
“What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asked in his journal, answering: “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”
As a former high school English/ELA teacher for 18 years, as I sat in the first of two training sessions yesterday, this from Thoreau came to mind.
Over the past 15 years, I have been a teacher educator, now a full and tenured professor in my university’s Education Department. Yet, from 9-4 yesterday, as representatives from the state department of education trained our full-time and adjunct faculty on the new South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) standards, I felt more like an elementary student because the so-called training was mostly condescending and entirely unprofessional.
But the unprofessional, I regret to acknowledge, is business as usual for teacher education, as a faux-field in higher education, and for K-12 teaching, a faux-profession.
Some of my doctoral courses for an EdD in curriculum and instruction covered educational leadership. In that work, I was always fascinated by what the research often describes as three types of leaders—authoritarian, authoritarian-light, and collegial.
The most chilling of the three is the authoritarian-light, which is a style that includes finding strategies that manipulate stakeholder buy-in by making it appear the stakeholders are making decisions even though they are actually being coerced to comply with mandates about which they have no real choice.
This is the process I suffered through yesterday as bureaucrats from the state department assured a room of professors and practitioners that the new state rubric for teacher evaluation is backed by research and that we already know and do everything therein.
Again, as a former English/ELA teacher, I am struggling with describing the experience as Orwellian, a Kafkan nightmare of reason, or both.
Training Teacher Educators to Train Teachers to Train Students
Some of the early session dynamics are worth noting upfront.
As part of the authoritarian-light strategies, the facilitators had lots of group work with large sticky paper and markers. Much laughing and chatting included references to the numerous teacher evaluation systems SC has adopted over the past three decades and how everyone in the room knew all this stuff.
We all shared our very E.D. Hirsch moment of knowing all the acronyms for the four or five systems many of us in the room have experienced.
And then the dramatic kicker: But this new rubric and system is different, better, and supported by research!
[Let’s note that no time was taken to acknowledge that this same framing occurred each time all the former systems were introduced.]
In passing, the credibility of the rubric was linked to the fact that the rubric includes footnotes (so do Ann Coulter’s books, by the way) to the incredible work of Danielson and Marzano!
However, as I found the rubric online, I noticed that neither were in the 23 footnotes.
[Let’s note that no time was taken to examine very powerful and credible counter-evidence refuting the credibility of the cult of Danielson and the cult of Marzano. Also, the cult of Hattie is in footnote 7, a hint to the hokum therein.]
Not to belabor the seven-hour training session, but a few additional points:
- This rubric is highly touted, yet when we raised concerns about vague terms such as “most” and “some” to distinguish between “proficient” and “needs improvement,” that conversation was mostly brushed aside, except that we discovered if you look under “Description of Qualifying Measures” on page 8, you learn that “most” means “some” (though “some remains undefined). By any fair evaluation of this rubric, it fails miserably the basic parameters of high-quality rubrics (interestingly something I teach in my methods courses).
- And then there is the rubric’s enormity: 404 bullets over 4 categories and nine pages of small Helvetica font. To navigate these bullets (and we were warned repeatedly to do so “holistically and not as a checklist” as we walked through the bullets as a checklist and not holistically) with any care at all requires nearly three hours for just one lesson, assuming about 2-minutes per bullet. Not only does the rubric fail basic expectations for clearly defined terms (just what the hell are “powerful ideas”?), but also it fails for being incredibly unwieldy and overwhelming.
- Throughout the training, two key points were emphasized: mastery and teacher impact on student learning. As I will discuss below, we were given no opportunity to explore the serious problems with both, and no time was spent highlighting how the training itself practiced faux-science in the context of each.
- As we explored the rubric, as well, the facilitators unpacked key factors that are not expressed in the rubric itself. Even though the language of the rubric under “proficient” references the teacher, the facilitators noted often that to move from “needs improvement” to “proficient” was dependent on students demonstrating mastery (showing “proficient”), not teacher behaviors (merely “needs improvement”).
To clarify how problematic this training proved to be, let me offer briefly the last activity, our viewing a lesson and watching the facilitators model how to use the rubric.
The lesson was a ninth-grade ELA lesson on inference, and the class was a “no excuses” charter school with black and brown children all adorned in matching purple shirts.
Here is the short version: the lesson, we were told, met the upper range of “proficient.”
Yet, what the activity highlighted was quite different than the intent.
The lesson was weak, a reductive attempt to teach inference to mastery that confuses isolated literacy skills with teaching literacy or literature. But this sort of bad lesson is necessary once you reduce teaching to mastery and teacher impact on student learning.
Instead of addressing this substantive problem and ways to conference with the teacher about focusing literacy instruction on rich texts and inviting students to explore those texts with more and more sophistication over a long period of time, the points of emphasis were on transcribing verbatim the lesson (although we could barely hear the audio) so that we could give lots of evidence for the bullet points we were not supposed to view as a checklist.
[Let’s note that no time was allowed to acknowledge that if and when teacher evaluators need detailed evidence of teaching, the video itself is superior to transcribing.]
The Big Point here is that once a rubric is codified by the state as a credentialing instrument, that rubric determines “proficient,” which may also simultaneously be a very bad, uninspiring, and reductive act of teaching.
Within that, as well, we witnessed the faux-science of claiming to embrace concepts while simultaneously contradicting them.
While only a few students out of a class of 20-plus students responded aloud during the lesson (our only potential evidence of learning), that constituted “most” and thus “proficient”—and represents in the Orwellian confines of this rubric “mastery.”
A few students offering one or two comments aloud in no reasonable way constitutes mastery, and there were no efforts to control for anything that justifies claiming this lesson by this teacher was a direct causal agent for the supposed learning. For example, those students willing to share may have come to class already capable of playing the inference game in school.
Teacher education as a bureaucratic mandate has mostly and currently functions as faux-science—adopting the language of being a certain kind of reductive behavioral psychology without taking the care and time to understand or implement the concept with fidelity.
This is a tragic consequence of the low self-esteem of the field—which becomes a vicious cycle of pretending (badly) to be a field deemed more credible (psychology) but unable to become a credible and independent field unfettered by bureaucracy.
Everything Wrong with Teacher Education Is Everything Wrong with Education
“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy,” concludes Rebecca Smith, adding:
Data hold elusive promises of addressing educational concerns, promising real-time personalized instruction, predicting student growth, and closing the achievement gap of marginalized students (Bernhardt, 2006; Earl & Katz, 2006; Spillane, 2012). Today collections of student data are considered a reliable and a scientific way of measuring academic growth, mobilizing school improvement, and creating accountable, qualified teachers. Influenced by policy, pedagogy, and governing school procedures, data collection has become normalized in schools. Instead of asking what we can do with data, the better questions are: How did the accepted practice of quantifying children become normalized in education? How does our interaction with data govern our thoughts, discourses, and actions? (p. 2)
And as Smith details, the historical roots are deep:
Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where “knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity” (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision. (p. 3)
As a logical although extreme consequence of this historical pattern, Common Core represents the false allure of accountability and standards as well as the quantification of teaching and learning within the idealized promise of “common.”
Common Core was doomed from the beginning, like the many iterations of standards before because as a consequence of the accountability era the evidence is quite clear:
There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum.
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.
For decades and decades—and then to an extreme over the past thirty years—education and teacher preparation have been mired in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
The quality of education, teaching, and learning is not in any reasonable way connected to the presence or quality of standards, to the ways in which we have chosen to measure and then quantify them.
Training education professionals to use a really bad rubric that will determine if candidates are allowed to teach “proficiently” (which I can define for you: “badly”) is insanity because within a few years, another rubric will be heralded as the greatest thing while teaching and learning are no better—and likely worse—for all the bluster, time, and money wasted.
Education and teacher education are trapped in a very long technocratic nightmare bound to a reductive behaviorism and positivism.
These false gods are useful for control and compliance, but are in no way supportive of educating everyone in a free society.
Technocrats and bureaucrats cut straight ditches; teaching and learning are meandering brooks.
Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”
This conversation in Ernest Hemingway’s sparse dramatization of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises, also serves as a chilling characterization of how the U.S. finds itself in post-truth Trumplandia.
The paradoxes multiply for those of us in education because we can not only see but also live the reality that our post-truth U.S. is both a consequence of a country’s negligence of universal public education and the cause of that negligence—notably the uber-corrosive accountability era of the past three decades.
It seems like a distant memory, but just months ago, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel, a crumbling of support for charter schools on the heels of rising resistance to standards and high-stakes testing.
And then the election of Donald Trump.
And then Trump’s apparent selection of a Secretary of Education with zero experience in public education and a harsh school choice agenda.
This feels not like passing dark clouds, but a potential permanent eclipse of the sun.
However, we must resist the alluring fatalism of Trumplandia upon us even though truth and evidence have been declared defunct.
In a time of post-truth, truth becomes Kryptonite.
The Crack in Charter School Support Must Be a Harbinger of the End of the Accountability Era
“What exactly is the position of charter school supporters?” ask educators and activists Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry, writing at The Hechinger Report. For some, the time to question charter school advocates and commitments to charter schools is well past due because the evidence is substantial that charter advocacy fails against miraculous claims and erodes community public schools.
Nearly three decades ago, charter schools began as educational experiments designed to benefit, not compete with, all public schools, but during the Obama administration, charter schools have increasingly turned into an alternative to traditional public schools, especially for black and brown students.
As a softer but misleading and more publicly palpable form of school choice, charter schools represent a microcosm of the larger accountability era of education reform. In many ways, charter schools have been defined by embracing Teach For America (TFA) and rejecting tenure and unionized staffs, focusing on standards and high-stakes testing, promising to close achievement gaps among vulnerable populations of students (black, brown, and poor), and identifying strongly with “no excuses” ideologies and policies such as teaching “grit” and growth mindset, as well as enforcing zero tolerance disciplinary agendas.
The transition from educational experimentation to educational alternative can likely be traced back to 2009, when David Brooks proclaimed the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) the “Harlem Miracle” and introduced Paul Tough and Geoffrey Canada to the education reform landscape.
Tough established himself as a powerful proponent of “grit,” and “miracle” charter schools, while Canada was soon crowned “Superman” in a controversial and biased documentary that promoted TFA and charters while demonizing unionized teachers.
Grounded in both Barack and Michelle Obama’s championing Canada’s HCZ, the education agenda of the last eight years has never really questioned charter schools or their advocates. However, at the end of Obama’s second term and despite this administration’s doubling down on George W. Bush-style accountability education reform, questions about charter school began in some notable places, including by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan penning The Myth of the “Miracle School.”
Ironically, charter schools have now returned to delivering on their original goal: they’re an experiment that has quite possibly produced what education reformers could not have anticipated—evidence that the accountability era has failed. Questioning charter schools prompts, then, another question: Can calls for a moratorium on expanding charter schools sustain a broader end to accountability era education reform?
From “Miracle” to Mirage
Over Obama’s two terms, charter schools went from “miracle” status to the focus of a searing satire by HBO’s John Oliver, prompting, as Valerie Strauss reports at The Answer Sheet: “the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit pro-charter organization, [to offer] $100,000 to the school that creates the best rebuttal video to Oliver’s rant.”
But the challenges and rebuttals to charter schools have also been extremely serious. Both the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement issued calls for a moratorium and an end to charter schools serving highly segregated impoverished and black/brown students.
The shift from “miracle” to mirage grew out of the utopian promises linked to charter schools, such as closing the achievement gap, paired with the crisis discourse (failing schools and “bad” teachers) around traditional public schools.
Advocates for charter schools blamed low academic outcomes for impoverished and minority students on “bad” teachers and the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but claimed that charter schools would close the achievement gap, primarily by implementing the major elements of the accountability education reform movement.
The promises of charter schools gradually began to be central to major reform efforts across the U.S.
Notably, one of the most powerful examples of eradicating traditional public schools and replacing them with charter schools—as well as firing the entire teacher workforce and replacing them with mostly TFA recruits—has been New Orleans post-Katrina, documented by education journalist Sarah Carr. Yet, since New Orleans became an all-charter school district, test scores have remained low and schools have continued to be plagued by segregation—the exact problems charters were supposed to eradicate.
Parental choice, which lies at the heart of support for charters, has failed, as Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University, has detailed. Broadly, Helig explains:
Despite the trendy popularity of charter schools in some circles, their wholesale replacement of traditional public schools is unnecessary. Not only do decades of data and research show this, but in each city there are plenty of successful public schools on the other side of the tracks or highway or river. The wealthy in the United States, regardless of locality, continue to have access to quality public education.
As an experiment, then, “decades of data” have produced results that charter proponents would like to ignore: on balance, charter schools are mostly indistinguishable in quality from traditional public schools, with both having some strong results while sharing lingering problems related to social class and race.
Since charter schools have become the primary face for the accountability machine of education reform, embracing many of the primary policies and practices of the standards and high-stakes testing era, challenging charter schools must continue as a lever for overturning the entire accountability era.
The Beginning of the End?: Maintaining Hope
As the tide has turned against charter schools, many parents have also begun to reject high-stakes testing and embrace the opt-out movement, and the entire country has witnessed a jumbled but significant challenge to national standards, the Common Core.
In other words, many of the key aspects of major polices designed to reform public education have suffered eroding support from the public in general and parents specifically—even while the larger political environment has embraced an ugly form of right-wing ideology. Questioning charter schools must continue and must also fit into helping create a much different structure for education reform.
Therefore, recent challenges to charter schools and the reform agenda cannot be allowed to be swept away in the post-truth mayhem of Trumplandia.
Even Tough, who made much of his fame by supporting “no excuses” charter schools and “grit” has begun to backpedal, as seen in his latest book and recent public messages. And zero tolerance policies, so prevalent in charter schools, have been challenged by parents, the public, and even the Office of Civil Rights.
Once popular among educators and the media, both “grit” and growth mindset have lost favor as well, particularly as useful approaches to addressing vulnerable populations of students. As Paul Gorski, Associate Professor of Integrative Studies in New Century College at George Mason University and founder of EdChange, warns: “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.”
And TFA, strongly linked with charter schools, has experienced multiple years of decline in applications, as well as cities and states dropping partnerships. Since TFA was touted as the quick and easy fix to a failed teacher workforce buoyed by teachers’ unions, this decline signals yet more cracks in both education reforms promises as well as suggests a potential end to the era of accountability.
Today, with powerful messages from the NAACP and BLM, activists supporting public schools must remain resolved to emphasize the overwhelming evidence that simply creating charter schools and implementing the same ineffective policies—new standards, new high-stakes tests, “grit,” growth mindset, zero tolerance, TFA—has not and cannot create the sort of reform needed that addresses inequity of opportunities for the students who need public schools the most.
As well, activists supporting public schools must be vigilant about the utter failure of school choice, which is a form of zombie politics paralleling the accountability buffet of the past thirty years that has proven to be universally hollow as well.
The remaining hurdles, of course, include a well informed and vocal public as well as political leaders in office (consider Duncan’s turn of attitude came after he left office) willing to question and then change their standard reform practices.
This now seems a Herculean task in post-truth Trumplandia—but hope has to overcome fatalism here. However, the rise of Trumplandia was both gradual and sudden.
As Emily Deruy writes in The Atlantic regarding Black Lives Matter’s K-12 education agenda:
“The education system in this country has never worked for poor people and people of color,” said Rivera. “We’re not calling for the status quo. We don’t want things to continue as they’ve always done.”
Ultimately, questions about charter schools and their advocates must continue and resonate in a way that recognizes an extremely complicated message about historical and current failures of public education—primarily the inequity of opportunity in the lives and schooling of black, brown, and poor students—that has not been and cannot be addressed by high-stakes accountability or through a form of schooling, charter schools, that simply houses failed policies.
Along with questioning charter support, Dixson and Perry call for reformers to change course in a way that serves communities—especially black and brown poor communities—instead of using those children and their education as political theater.
In post-truth Trumplandia, this imperative is even more urgent.
Charter schools like the entirety of the accountability era must be named for what they are: political theater.
Trumplandia as the ultimate and most hollow political theater cannot be allowed to win.
Along with U.S. politics, public education and education reform need a new script, and continuing resolved to stop charter schools and the accountability era can be an important moment in making that happen.
Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, Dan Chiasson
The way that Dickinson’s poems made it out of that house, eventually reshaping American literature, is a story that is still unfolding. Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously; publication was, as she put it, as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” Not that she intended her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters to friends, sometimes with other enclosures: dried flowers, a three-cent stamp, a dead cricket. She also tried a form of self-publishing: from around 1858 until roughly 1864, she gathered her poems into forty homemade books, known as “fascicles,” by folding single sheets of blank paper in half to form four consecutive pages, which she then wrote on and, later, bound, one folded sheet on another, with red-and-white thread strung through crudely punched holes. These books were found in Dickinson’s room after her death, in 1886, by her sister, Lavinia, along with hundreds more poems in various states of composition, plus, intriguingly, the “scraps,” a cache of lines that Dickinson wrote on scavenged paper: the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper.
One has to create lies or create truths or essentially just create some reality that allows one to live day to day. This is the purpose of science and religion according to Vonnegut; they provide the destructive truths of the physical world that lead to the atom bomb and the inflated lies of the spiritual world that hide mass indoctrination and ignorance behind the façade of peace and faith. It is this need to create a reality which one can understand that leads to the creation of Bokononism, a universally practiced religion banned on the island of San Lorenzo, based on the ideology of “living by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
The day after Donald Trump was elected, one of my former students, from that same class, sent me a text message. We had not spoken in some time. She wrote, “I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m a little scared. Unsure of what’s going to happen.” She continued, “I know I wasn’t born here, but this has become my country. I’ve been here for so long, with a lot of shame, I don’t even know my own country’s history, but I know plenty of this one.” In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump reiterated that he would move immediately to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants. As for the rest, he said, “after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination.” After I listened to the interview, I began looking over the essays from a writing assignment I had given a different group of students, years ago. The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.
Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.
Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.
Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven”
The field experience students complete as part of my foundations of education course has this semester blended well with their reading Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.
As we have discussed both during class sessions, students have been drawn to witnessing and reading as well as thinking about how teachers view and respond to their students.
Although these students have virtually no background in formal education, they have been very perceptive about the inordinate, and distracting, pressures on teachers to cover the curriculum (standards) and prepare students for testing—notably while observing and tutoring at a local majority-minority elementary school.
High student/teacher ratios have also been identified as making good classroom practice nearly impossible.
Running through our discussions has been a concern about how teachers treat students (often more harshly than my students anticipated or endorsed) and about the pervasive deficit perspective throughout the school.
Observing and tutoring in special needs classes and among Latinx students needing to acquire English have intensified how my students have responded to their field placement and their recognition of the myriad factors that impact negatively formal education.
Often unspoken, but what teachers and students share in far too many schools is a “no excuses” imperative that demands teachers perform well (even miraculously) despite being placed in circumstances that work against their efforts and that demands students somehow leave the pressures and inequities of their lives in order to excel at academics being imposed on them.
Teresa Watanabe’s Can a child who starts kindergarten with few reading or math skills catch up? is a snapshot of what my students have witnessed and what Emdin’s work challenges.
Responding to that article, Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has identified the problem that my students have observed:
But there is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning, and no evidence showing that the Common Core standards are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards….
Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car and spell words during family outings in order to “master” 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind. Children who develop a love of reading will master thousands of words, without suffering.
Although political leaders and the public often view the authoritarian classroom where teachers are charged with keeping order and demanding that students learn standards and content about which they have no choice or input as the solution, it is now far past time to recognize that this is the problem with formal schooling.
Of course, what we teach is important at every level of education, and that what is becoming even more important for our democracy as we are confronted with a new post-truth media and politics.
That what needs to be the sort of truth that empowers a free people.
That what also needs to include a clear focus on the civility of learning and wrestling with ideas since our post-truth media and politics are increasing and justifying the demanding and nasty tone that is already a problem in many schools.
However, the what must remain secondary to the who—who we teach is what makes teaching an essential calling grounded in the dignity of both teachers and their students.
And the what can never be well taught or learned unless we attend to the conditions of teaching/learning and living among our teachers and students.
The authoritarian classroom, deficit thinking, “no excuses” ideologies and practices—these are corrosive elements for teaching, learning, and democracy as well as liberty.
The very long era of standardized testing and the more recent and relatively shorter era of accountability and standards have inflicted immeasurable harm on teachers and students.
And even as educator autonomy and professionalism become daily further eroded, we are morally obligated to call for and remain grounded in our role as teachers of students.
The who of teaching and learning must always come before the what.
We Marxists are rightfully criticized for being idealistic, but we are unfairly demonized by those across the U.S. who wrongly associate Marxism, socialism, and communism with totalitarian governments and human oppression.
You see, Marxism as a scholarly stance is a moral stance—unlike the amoral pose of capitalism.
We Marxist academics and scholars are all about the good, the right, and the equitable—including creating intellectually challenging classrooms in which every student feels physically and psychologically safe.
But this is 2016 Trumplandia, a sort of Bizarro World in which reality TV has become a real-life nightmare, including a professor watch list promoted by an Orwellian right-wing organization that claims to be protecting free speech and academic freedom by identifying dangerous professors.
George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, has responded with the powerful I Am a Dangerous Professor, and my home state of South Carolina has had three professors included on the list.
The responses to the list have run a range from fear (because professors have received very serious threats) to bemusement to anger about not being included.
I am a white male full professor with tenure, but I teach in the South—where before I joined a university faculty, I was an intellectually closeted public school teacher for 18 stressful years.
As a leftist and atheist, I was constantly vigilant to mask who I was, what I believe and live, because I was fearful of losing my job and career (SC is an Orwellian-named “right to work” state) that I dearly love.
When I interviewed for my current position, I was about as naive and idealistic as a person could be about the golden fields of higher education.
During my model lesson for my day-long interview, I explained to the class I was a critical pedagogue, and thus offering a Marxist perspective on literacy and power.
Later in the day, at the debriefing and in hushed tones, I was told I may want to not share the whole Marxist thing if hired at the university.
I was hired—although my being a critical educator, scholar, and public intellectual have all been problematic throughout my second career as a professor.
And I have bull-headedly remained true to my ethics as both a professor/teacher and a critical pedagogue, best expressed by my dear friend and mentor Joe Kincheloe:
Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (p. 2)
Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….
In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)
In fact, yesterday in my foundations of education course, I reiterated to the class that as a Marxist I often seem obnoxious, even dogmatic because I teach and speak with a moral imperative, an impassioned moral imperative—seeking that which is right, good, and equitable.
About this watch list, then, I am torn, struggling between embracing Yancy’s brilliant rebuttal and my own belief that I am in fact not the dangerous one because the dangerous thing about this world is to remain both ignorant and without a moral grounding.
As a Marxist educator and scholar/public intellectual, as a critical pedagogue, I am not the person hiding who I am or what I am seeking.
The dishonest are those who claim to be objective when in fact they are endorsing uncritically an inequitable status quo.
The dishonest are those claiming a non-political pose that is itself a political pose.
The dishonest are waving flags and chanting the entirely dishonest “Make America Great Again.”
That is dangerous stuff—endangering the faint promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I, in fact, hold sacred.
So I am left with this paradox: I, too, am a dangerous professor if you covet ignorance, hatred.
If you are seeking the Truth, however, as well as the right, the good, and the equitable, please call me comrade because I am no danger to you at all.