The Science of Writing: A 36-Year Journey and Counting

Science is not a hammer.

Science is an old-growth forest, each tree an organic thing. Think of a tree as a theory. At any moment that tree (theory) is fully a tree but not the tree it will be.

As a tree grows, it becomes more robust, a stronger trunk, deeper roots. If we inspect that trunk, we find rings detailing the history of how that tree became stronger with age. Theories too are not simply the result of fixed evidence, but an accumulation of evidence, an accumulation that evolves over time.

Science, like that old-growth forest, is never settled, but it is always at any moment the best that it can be in terms of being a forest and in terms of the trees being the tress of that moment. You see, science is also organic, not yet the forest or trees it can and will be.

Old-growth forests are also characterized by being untouched by humans, and while science is the product of humans, science often seeks ways to limit the flaws of that human contact (a lofty and unattainable goal, but one that helps science aspire toward truth and Truth).

Science ultimately is aspirational; it can never be settled, fixed, and anyone using science as a hammer is, in fact, not being scientific.

Science is not a hammer.

Science is an old-growth forest, each tree an organic thing.

#

Viewing science as a hammer is the fatal flaw of the “science of reading” (SoR) movement that has gained momentum in 2019. Advocates of SoR begin by claiming that this science is settled:

In spite of the current discussions, the science on this instructional issue is settled. Castles, Rastle, & Nation (2018) lay out that there is a clear progression to effective literacy instruction. First and foremost, children need to understand the principles of spelling-sound correspondences and to solidify a store of high-frequency words to read words and phrases fluently. Most children need explicit teaching to build this knowledge. After decoding and high-frequency words are established, more attention can be devoted to comprehension with a focus on making meaning. Castles et al. (2018) offer a logical and research-based model. In spite of this research, educators remain without consensus about what is most important—phonics instruction or a focus on comprehension.

Science is not a hammer, neither is it to be used to bludgeon nor is it a singular tool.

In fact, especially for education as well as teaching literacy, science is a much broader spectrum of evidence than SoR advocates are arguing, steeped as they are in the neurosciences.

The science needed to guide real-world teaching of literacy is an old-growth forest of many types of trees at different stages of growth.

For example, I primarily have been a teacher of writing for 36 years and counting. I have taught students from 9th grade through graduate courses.

As a scholar of teaching writing, I am well versed in the experimental/quasi-experimental research base on teaching writing as well as a huge and complex body of qualitative research.

I also have 36 years of experience with thousands of students.

All of that is at my disposal as I teach any student to write, an act that for me is highly individualized—even when I taught 100-125 high school students five days a week.

The generalizations and controls that result from and govern experimental/quasi-experimental research (which is dominant in neuroscience) are informative (not prescriptive) for me as a teacher, but my work tends to be with many different outliers—humans, that is—who may thrive with practices outside the constraints of narrow types of science.

I don’t use science as a hammer because students are fragile things, and instruction that treats them all as ten-penny nails is unwarranted.

#

You may be thinking about climate change, evolutionary science, or vaccinations—all of which many people would argue are settled science.

“Settled,” I think, remains a problematic word even in those contexts.

All science based in experimental/quasi-experimental research when properly vetted is compelling, compelling to the point that it feels settled, compelling to the point that we must act in ways that confirm it is settled even as we are aware this tree may grow.

Since all sciences remain in the replication loop, we are best off calling even the largest tree with the most powerful trunk and deepest roots “compelling,” not settled.

In qualitative research, “compelling” is the best we can hope for, but much of that research is compelling, although with caveats about the evidence not reaching standards of generalizability and the conditions of the evidence not bound by controls.

#

Let me end with an anecdote, what some would call not scientific. It is the story of having taught writing for 36 years and counting, and still being very cautious about my practice and very nervous about the fate of my field of teaching writing.

Actually this is an anecdote about gathering anecdotal evidence, the sort of scientific teaching that John Dewey envisioned for progressive educators.

I always spend the last class of my first-year writing seminars by discussing with students what has worked and what I should do differently in the future.

I also use this class to re-emphasize that my overarching goals for these classes are about fostering in them greater authority and autonomy as students and writers about to run the gauntlet of three-and-a-half additional years (or more) of college.

This fall, students argued for having Essay 1 turned in earlier, allowing more time and class sessions for Essay 3 (the academically cited essay), and moving Essay 4 earlier to leave more time for the revised submission.

We fleshed out these requests against the goals of the course, and ultimately, I found their anecdotal feedback compelling. My schedule for fall 2020 will be revised.

As the professor, as well, I have reflected on how to better encourage students to revise their essays and not simply address what I have marked for them. I discussed this problem with another teacher, and am considering a new policy on how students should resubmit their essays.

In the past, I have required students to resubmit essays in clean Word files, track changes, comments, and highlighting all removed. Part of that requirement was aimed at helping students better use Word as a tool, but I also have trouble with Word files that are busy.

However, as I discussed student revision with a friend who teaches writing, I thought about how students having the track changes visible for their revisions would show them how much, or how little, they actually revised. Visible track changes can be a very effective teaching tool.

So my new policy may be that students submit two Word files, one clean and one with only the track changes of their revisions (with the file including “TC”).

This, then, is a brief anecdote about how I teach scientifically as a professional educator, a writer, and an expert in literacy. I teach with caution, I resist teaching with a hammer.

This means that when some students demonstrate a need for a type of instruction not supported by a narrow type of research, I still provide the student with that instruction. We may even experiment with a range of strategies until the student feels capable on their own.

I am always cautious, but I am also nervous because while the “science of reading” mania is in full stride, I see on the horizon a similar fate for the teaching of writing: Scientific evidence on how to teach writing is slim.

I suspect the mainstream media will discover a field that already exists, has for a century or more. I suspect the allure of “science” will blind that media and those who also feel passionate about the dismal state of student writing.

So somewhat preemptively, I want to offer about the teaching of writing:

Science is not a hammer.

Science is an old-growth forest, each tree an organic thing.

Back to the Future of Reading Instruction: 1990s Edition

The year is 1997 and the topic, of course, is improving a failing education system in the U.S. Linda Darling-Hammond explains in the Preface [1]:

This follow-up report, Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, seeks to gauge the nation’s progress toward the goal of high-quality teaching in every classroom in every community. It draws on data about the conditions of teaching that have become available since the original Commission report was released, and it examines policy changes that have occurred.

This report has five recommendations that may sound familiar:

I. Standards for teachers linked to standards for students….

II. Reinvent teacher preparation and professional development….

III. Overhaul teacher recruitment and put qualified teachers in every classroom….

IV. Encourage and reward knowledge and skill….

V. Create schools that are organized for student and teacher success.

We need better standards for teachers and students, better teacher education, better recruitment of teachers focusing on high quality, better reward systems for teacher expertise and outcomes, and better teaching and learning conditions.

Yet, the report also offers some sobering information:

Over the last decade, reforms have sought to increase the amount of academic coursework and the numbers of tests students take, in hopes of improving achievement. These initiatives have made a great difference in coursetaking: In 1983, only 14% of high school students took the number of academic courses recommended in A Nation at Risk—4 units in English and 3 each in mathematics, science, and social studies. By 1994, more than half (51%) had taken this set of recommended courses.

Despite these changes, achievement scores have improved little, and have actually declined slightly for high school students in reading and writing since 1988 (see figure 3). [emphasis added]

Let’s look at that figure 3:

NAEP trends 1980 1990

Notice anything familiar above when we look at 4th and 8th grade reading since the early 1990s?

trend grade 4 readingtrend grade 8 reading

While this report concedes what research has long shown—the largest influences on measurable student outcomes are out-of-school factors (parent income, level of education, etc.)—the focus remains on teacher practices, offering a rare set of correlations between scores and those practices:

Correlates of reading NAEP 1992

Here is where I want to pause to note that while no one has conducted even a correlational graph such as the one above—and no one has conducted scientific research to identify causal relationships—to draw conclusions about 2017 and 2019 NAEP scores, this chart raises some key questions about the current “science of reading” claims about teacher education and the need for systematic intensive phonics (and not whole language or balanced literacy).

Note above that whole literacy practices and training correlate with higher scores.

Twenty years after this report from Darling-Hammond have seen at least two significant additional rounds of educational reform, one driven by No Child Left Behind and another sputtering one connected to Common Core.

Just as educational leaders were in the 1990s, we are left with the same data problems, notably flat or dismal reading scores, and can only reach for the same lazy arguments that have never worked before.

The five recommendations from 1997 are echoed today by political leaders and the “science of reading” crowd, all bashing teacher education, teacher expertise, and focusing on standards, tests, and programs.

And little to nothing is done about food and work security, healthcare, or class size—even though these conditions combined would dwarf any measurable impact of teacher quality or program/standards quality.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” and NAEP-crisis rhetoric are doomed because the Christopher Columbus syndrome (thinking you have discovered something that others you ignore or marginalize have known forever) insures that one truism will remain true—those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

Today’s reading crisis is that, back to the future of reading, a 1990s edition recast [2].


[1] Credit and appreciation to Diane Stephens, literacy expert and former professor at the University of South Carolina, who brought this report to my attention.

[2] Don’t forget the 1940s also: “What Shall We Do About Reading Today?”

What Is the Relationship among NAEP Scores, Educational Policy, and Classroom Practice?

Annually, the media, public, and political leaders over-react and misrepresent the release of SAT and ACT scores from across the US. Most notably, despite years of warnings from the College Board against the practice, many persist in ranking states by average state scores, ignoring that vastly different populations are being incorrectly compared.

These media, public, and political reactions to SAT and ACT scores are premature and superficial, but the one recurring conclusion that would be fair to emphasize is that, as with all standardized test data, the most persistent correlation to these scores includes the socio-economic status of the students’ families as well as the educational attainment of their parents.

Over many decades of test scores, in fact, educational policy and classroom practices have changed many times, and the consistency of those policies and practices have been significantly lacking and almost entirely unexamined.

For example, when test scores fell in California in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the media, public, and political leaders all blamed the state’s shift to whole language as the official reading policy.

This was a compelling narrative that, as I noted above, proved to be premature and superficial—relying on the most basic assumptions of correlation. A more careful analysis exposed two powerful facts: California test scores were far more likely to have dropped because of drastic cuts to educational funding and a significant influx of English language learners and (here is a very important point) even as whole language was the official reading policy of the state, few teachers were implementing whole language in their classrooms.

This last point cannot be emphasized enough: throughout the history of public education, because teaching is mostly a disempowered profession (primarily staffed by women), one recurring phenomenon is that teachers often shut their doors and teach—claiming their professional autonomy by resisting official policy.

November 2019 has brought us a similar and expected round of making outlandish and unsupported claims about NAEP data. With the trend downward in reading scores since 2017, this round is characterized by the sky-is-falling political histrionics and hollow fist pounding that NAEP scores have proven policies a success or a failure (depending on the agenda).

If we slip back in time just a couple decades, when the George W. Bush administration heralded the “Texas miracle” as a template for No Child Left Behind, we witnessed a transition from state-based educational accountability to federal accountability. But this moment in political history also raised the stakes on scientifically based educational policy and practice.

Specifically, the National Reading Panel was charged with identifying the highest quality research in effective reading programs and practices. (As a note, while the NRP touted its findings as scientific, many, including a member of the panel itself [1], have discredited the quality of the findings as well as accurately cautioning against political misuse of the findings to drive policy).

Here is where our trip back in history may sound familiar during this current season of NAEP hand wringing. While Secretary of Education (2005-2009), Margaret Spellings announced that a jump of 7 points in NAEP reading scores from 1999-2005 was proof No Child Left Behind was working. The problem, however, was in the details:

[W]hen then-Secretary Spellings announced that test scores were proving NCLB a success, Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen exposed one of two possible problems with the data. Spellings either did not understand basic statistics or was misleading for political gain. Krashen detailed the deception or ineptitude by showing that the gain Spellings noted did occur from 1999 to 2005, a change of seven points. But he also revealed that the scores rose as follows: 1999 = 212; 2000 = 213; 2002 = 219; 2003 = 218 ; 2005 = 219. The jump Spellings used to promote NCLB and Reading First occurred from 2000 to 2002, before the implementation of Reading First. Krashen notes even more problems with claiming success for NCLB and Reading First, including:

“Bracey (2006) also notes that it is very unlikely that many Reading First children were included in the NAEP assessments in 2004 (and even 2005). NAEP is given to nine year olds, but RF is directed at grade three and lower. Many RF programs did not begin until late in 2003; in fact, Bracey notes that the application package for RF was not available until April, 2002.”

Jump to 2019 NAEP data release to hear Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shout that the sky is falling and public education needs more school choice—without a shred of scientific evidence making causal relationships of any kind among test data, educational policy, and classroom practice.

But an even better example has been unmasked by Gary Rubinstein who discredits Louisiana’s Chief of Change John White (praised by former SOE Arne Duncan) proclaiming his educational policy changes caused the state’s NAEP gain in math:

So while, yes, Louisiana’s 8th grade math NAEP in 2017 was 267 and their 8th grade math NAEP in 2019 was 272 which was a 5 point gain in that two year period and while that was the highest gain over that two year period for any state, if you go back instead to their scores from 2007, way before their reform effort happened, you will find that in the 12 year period from 2007 to 2019, Louisiana did not lead the nation in 8th grade NAEP gains.  In fact, Louisiana went DOWN from a scale score of 272.39 in 2007 to a scale score of 271.64 in 2019 on that test.  Compared to the rest of the country in that 12 year period.  This means that in that 12 year period, they are 33rd in ‘growth’ (is it even fair to call negative growth ‘growth’?).  The issue was that from 2007 to 2015, Louisiana ranked second to last on ‘growth’ in 8th grade math.  Failing to mention that relevant detail when bragging about your growth from 2017 to 2019 is very sneaky.

The media and public join right in with this political playbook that has persisted since the early 1980s: Claim that public education is failing, blame an ever-changing cause for that failure (low standards, public schools as monopolies, teacher quality, etc.), promote reform and change that includes “scientific evidence” and “research,” and then make unscientific claims of success (or yet more failure) based on simplistic correlation and while offering no credible or complex research to support those claims.

Here is the problem, then: What is the relationship among NAEP scores, educational policy, and classroom practice?

There are only a couple fair responses.

First, 2019 NAEP data replicate a historical fact of standardized testing in the US—the strongest and most persistent correlations to that data are with the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and the states. When students or average state data do not conform to that norm, these are outliers that may or may not provide evidence for replication or scaling up. However, you must consider the next point as well.

Second, as Rubinstein shows, the best way to draw causal relationship among NAEP data, educational policy, and classroom practices is to use longitudinal data; I would recommend at least 20 years (reaching back to NCLB), but thirty years would add in a larger section of the accountability era that began in the 1980s but was in wide application across almost all states by the 1990s.

The longitudinal data would next have to be aligned with the current educational policy in math and reading for each state correlated with each round of NAEP testing.

As Bracey and Krashen cautioned, that correlation would have to accurately align when the policy is implemented with enough time to claim that the change impacted the sample of students taking NAEP.

But that isn’t all, even as complex and overwhelming as this process demands.

We must address the lesson from the so-called whole language collapse in California by documenting whether or not classroom practice implemented state policy with some measurable level of fidelity.

This process is a herculean task, and no one has had the time to examine 2019 NAEP data in any credible way to make valid causal claims about the scores and the impact of educational policy and classroom practice.

What seems fair, however, to acknowledge is that there is no decade over the past 100 years when the media, public, and political leaders deemed test scores successful, regardless of the myriad of changes to policies and practices.

Over the history of public education, also, before and after the accountability era began, student achievement in the US has been mostly a reflection of socio-economic factors, and less about student effort, teacher quality, or any educational policies or practices.

If NAEP data mean anything, and I am prone to say they are much ado about nothing, we simply do not know what that is because we have chosen political rhetoric over the scientific process and research that could give us the answers.


[1] See:

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

Did Reading First Work?, Stephen Krashen

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

 

The Great Accountability Scam: High-Stakes Testing Edition

Among other teachers and education scholars, I have been making a case throughout my 36 years in education that has prompted mostly derision from edureformers, politicians, the media, and “no excuses” advocates; the position grounded in evidence includes:

  • Standardized and high-stakes tests are weak proxies for student achievement and teacher/school quality but powerful proxies for the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and communities.
  • And thus, important contributions made by teachers and schools to student learning are very difficult to measure or identify in any direct or singular way (either in a one-sitting test or linked to one teacher over one course, etc.).
  • Accountability structures do not and cannot reform in any substantive way teaching and learning; in fact, high-stakes standards and testing are likely to impact negatively complex and powerful teaching and learning in the name of democracy, human agency, and equity.
  • All in-school-only education reform, then, will appear to (and actually) “fail” as long as public policy does not first or concurrently address socioeconomic inequities such as healthcare, work quality and stability, food insecurity, safety and justice, etc.
  • Social and educational reforms are extremely complex and take far more time than political and public impatience allows; however, the proper political will should shift the U.S. social and educational reform toward an equity structure (not an accountability structure) in order to see observable positive change over time.
  • In-school equity reform must address teacher assignments, de-tracking course access, fully funding all in-school meals, fully publicly funding K-16 education, school discipline and dress codes grounded in restorative justice and race/class/gender equity, and student/teacher ratios.

Historically and currently, public education—as well as charter schools and private schools—serve well the students with the most race, class, and gender privileges and mis-serve inexcusably the most vulnerable students—black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students, and impoverished students.

Accountability does not and cannot address that gap; high-stakes testing measures that gap and often increases the inequity since the stakes are tied to gatekeeping in education and society.

Formal education in the U.S. has mostly reflected and perpetuated our national and regional inequities, and the claim that schooling is a “game changer” remains a deforming myth.

As a recent additional source of evidence for my claims, please see this study by Kenneth Shores, Pennsylvania State University and Matthew P. Steinberg, George Mason University:

The Great Recession was the most severe economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), we describe the patterns of math and English language arts (ELA) achievement for students attending schools in communities differentially affected by recession-induced employment shocks. Employing a difference-in-differences strategy that leverages both cross-county variation in the economic shock of the recession and within-county, cross-cohort variation in school-age years of exposure to the recession, we find that declines in student math and ELA achievement were greater for cohorts of students attending school during the Great Recession in communities most adversely affected by recession-induced employment shocks, relative to cohorts of students that entered school after the recession had officially ended. Moreover, declines in student achievement were larger in school districts serving more economically disadvantaged and minority students. We conclude by discussing potential policy responses. (Abstract)

Time to End the Charter School Distraction

The 21st century charter school movement in the U.S. has been at least a deeply flawed solution for a misunderstood problem. But charter advocacy has also suffered from a serious contradictory pair of arguments aimed simultaneously at traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools.

As stringent high-stakes accountability gradually ramped up for TPS from the early 1980s and through both the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and the even more intense (and volatile) Obama administration, charter school advocacy increased, and those schools expanded across the U.S. driven by the argument that charter schools flourish because of their independence from bureaucratic mandates.

TPS suffered a series of ever-new standards and high-stakes tests, persistent narratives that they were “failing,” and a recalcitrant public and political leadership that refused to acknowledge the nearly crippling impact of social inequity on any school’s ability to effectively teach children.

Yet, at the same time, charter schools were routinely hailed falsely as “miracles” and neither the public nor political leadership seemed to care that research repeatedly revealed that charter schools simply did not outperform TPS (just as private schools do not outperform TPS). In short, charter schools have continued to float on advocacy and magical thinking even when we can clearly show that school type has nearly no impact on student outcomes—since those outcomes are far more significantly driven by out-of-school factors (home and community economic status, parental education levels, home security, access to food, medical care access, etc.).

Just as the Bush/Paige Texas “miracle” that spurred NCLB was soundly debunked, the Harlem “miracle” often cited by Obama/Duncan proved directly and indirectly (the many copy-cat charter “miracles” across the U.S., such as KIPP charter schools) to be mirages.

Like KIPP advocacy, however, the all-charter-school reality that has occurred in New Orleans after Katrina has also flourished on political and media misrepresentations.

An editorial in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has now offered one step in the right direction on charter schools in SC—but it fails to offer the only logical end-game concerning charter funding in this high-poverty state.

Yes, as the editorial notes after citing a Tulane study on charters [1]:

Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

As I have detailed dozens of times directly about comparing charter schools and TPS in SC, most charter schools are about the same or worse than TPS that are serving similar populations of students. When charter schools appear to be outperforming, typically those gains are mirages that distract us from the real causal differences—under-serving special needs students, under-serving English language learners, expanded school days and/or years that account for the “growth” being measured, private funding, relief from accountability that comparable TPS must follow.

A simple dictum here is that if we allowed TPS those same caveats, we would see absolutely no surface differences in test scores; a more complicated dictum is that if charter schools had to function under the nearly paralyzing spectrum of obligations that TPS have always addressed, those charter schools would be seen as failures also.

The harsh truth no one wants to confront is that formal schooling, regardless of the type, has a very small measurable impact on student achievement when compared to the relatively larger influence of out-of-school factors. Related to that harsh truth is that once vulnerable students enter formal schooling, they far too often experience even greater inequities because all school models (TPS, charter schools, private schools) both reflect and perpetuate inequities in their policies (teacher assignment, tracking, disciplinary policies, class size and course access inequity, etc.).

As some of us in education have been arguing for decades, education reform must be grounded in equity and in-school reform can succeed only as a companion to significant social and economic reform that addresses food insecurity, work stability, health care, and safety (what I have called social context reform).

Again, the P&C editorial has offered an important charge that “South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement” for charter schools. But simply closing failing charter schools is not enough since we should not be creating charter schools to begin with.

In fact, we should close all charter schools because the charter churn (and all school choice) is a wasteful and politically cowardly indirect approach to reform.

SC is a historically high-poverty state that simultaneously clings to self-defeating conservative politics. Neither social/economic nor education policy in the state serves well the very large vulnerable populations of the state, not the adults or the children.

The political rhetoric and the ideology it spreads are themselves mirages at best, and cruel lies at worst.

New Orleans since 2005 has erased and replaced a TPS system with a charter system, and still the narrative remains about the exact same—schools need reform.

Formal schools regardless of the type reflect the children and communities they serve. Formal schools are rarely change agents.

If SC or any state genuinely wants education reform that serves all students, we will first invest in our entire state in ways that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us and then we will re-invest in a public school system that fulfills the promise that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn that we can imagine.

Leaving equity in our society and our schools to the Invisible Hand is nothing more than a slap to the faces of the people and children who need us the most.


[1] This Tulane study has been repeatedly misrepresented by charter advocates; please see the following for a fuller and more complex picture of what that study can suggest, and what it does not:

A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of [their] making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which . . . effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

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.

Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

Over three-plus decades of teaching, I have found that students are far less likely to laugh while reading Franz Kafka than, say, while reading Kurt Vonnegut. But Kafka and Vonnegut are essentially satirists, though both traffic mainly in dark humor.

Black-and-white photograph of Kafka as a young man with dark hair in a formal suit

Franz Kafka 1923 (public domain)

The Metamorphosis is the work most people associate with Kafka, but it isn’t readily recognized, I have found, that the work is filled with slapstick humor—the scene when Gregor is revealed as a bug to his family—while also making a damning commentary on the consequences of the bureaucratic life.

You see, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a bug is merely a physical manifestation of his life as a salesman, which, Kafka illustrates, is nothing more than a bug’s life.

This, of course, was Kafka’s impression of early twentieth century Prussia as well as the corrosive nature of materialism. As I enter my eighteenth year as as a teacher educator, after eighteen years as a public school English teacher, I can attest that Kafka has pretty much nailed my career on the head as well.

So when I saw Teacher-Preparation Programs Again Have a Choice of Accreditors. But Should They? in Education Week, I immediately recognized that this was the wrong question—or at least incomplete.

Accountability, standards, and assessment have been pervasive my entire career in education, which began in 1984. Over that career, I have heard a consistent refrain about the failures of both K-12 education and teacher education.

As I have recently detailed, teacher education is, in fact, the new scapegoat for all that ails education.

I have worked through about ten combined iterations of standards and assessment expectations, include two different rounds of submitting the teacher preparation program I am solely responsible for now, the first being for NCATE and the for CAEP (mentioned prominently in the article linked above).

Through these experiences, I have witnessed that the same complaints of failure remain while each new round of standards and assessment promise to reform the system and bring great success (often for all students), only to be replaced in a few years under the blanket of the same crisis rhetoric and the same promises that never materialize.

This Kafkan nightmare is perfectly described by Gilles Deleuze, who also turns to Kafka:

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (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. In The Trial, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of judicial forms. The apparent acquittal of the disciplinary societies (between two incarcerations); and the limitless postponements of the societies of control (in continuous variation) are two very different modes of juridicial life, and if our law is hesitant, itself in crisis, it’s because we are leaving one in order to enter the other.

In my home state of South Carolina, for example, the state adopted Common Core standards, planned to implement the assessment designed for those standards, purchased textbooks and materials aligned with the standards, trained teachers in the standards, and then dropped the standards for new SC versions of standards before Common Core could ever be fully implemented.

My first experience with accreditation of teacher education programs was early in my tenure in higher education. I was baffled both by the process (again, I am solely responsible for an entire program and all the data as well as the report submitted for that accreditation) and my colleagues’ almost complete uncritical obsession with the requirements. In short, the vast majority of my department’s time and attention was devoted to fulfilling the obligations of accreditation—not teaching, not scholarship, but standards, rubrics, and data tables mandated by the accreditation entity.

Just six or seven short years later, the process came back around again—nearly the same, but different. NCATE had been replaced by CAEP and standards were different along with the report itself and the broad expectations being both eerily different and the same.

Accreditation, I suspect, is a process that is perceived as a necessary layer of bureaucracy to insure some sort of consistency and fidelity among all teacher education programs across the U.S. This appears to be the same initial urge driving Common Core, for example.

Political leaders have used accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing for nearly four decades as a way to claim a commitment to higher expectations and better outcomes from the public education system. The public appears incapable over that time to examine closely the argument that schools are failing (the mainstream argument is both false and misleading) or the assertion that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing will somehow address those problems.

Accreditation of teacher education is essentially a thinly veiled admission that there is no political or public trust of teacher educators, the field of education, or teachers.

Beneath that lack of trust, the accountability era for public education and the allure of accreditation are evidence that political leaders and the public fundamentally misunderstand teaching and learning.

Here is the sobering truth about teaching and learning: To teach is about offering the opportunity to learn; however, there is no way to guarantee that teaching will result in learning regardless of the quality of the teacher or the motivation of the student.

Accountability and accreditation are designed with the assumption that teaching and learning can be prescribed and clearly defined (standards) and then made visible with assessments that are valid and authentic.

Those assumptions are mostly hokum.

The standards and testing movement in K-12 education and the accreditation process for teacher education have proven to be what Oscar Wilde argued about how government addresses poverty: ““But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

Trying to meet the requirements of accreditation has made teacher educators less effective, has reduced the quality of courses and experiences for pre-service teachers, and has consumed an incredible amount of time and financial resources for teacher educators.

It is much ado about nothing.

The EdWeek question, then, is overly simplistic; the rise of AAQEP as an alternative to CAEP is the “illusion of choice” that masks the truly important choice—teacher education and education as a field need to abandon accreditation and seek instead to build a discipline.

Meeting the demands of accreditation is a waste of time and resources that should be dedicated to the things associated with disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, etc.—reading and thinking deeply about the ideas and practices at the core of the field, conducting a wide range of research on those topics and problems, producing scholarship that informs an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning, and engaging students in those topics in ways that allow them to become the educators they seek to be.

To reject accreditation is to embrace higher expectations for teacher education, teacher educators, and teachers.

At the end of The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s macabre demise is a distraction for many readers who miss that this is a story about such rejections and not necessarily a tale about Gregor, but his family. After Gregor dies, “Then all three [Gregor’s family] left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun.”

Careful reading of the final paragraph reveals that the family’s obsession with Gregor, who himself had embraced a toxic bug life dedicated to erasing the family’s debt, has to be abandoned for their eventual happiness: “The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent an apartment smaller and cheaper but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found.”

Gregor’s sister becomes the symbol of a new, and better, possibility, a fully human life unfettered by the bug life swept into the dust bin.

See Also

The Metamorphosis at 100, Alexander Billet