The Academy: Razing the Old to Raise the New

Since I feel skepticism on the verge of antagonism toward tradition, I have struggled with the responses to the fire consuming Notre-Dame.

I certainly find the lost unfortunate, but I wonder how the opulence of the structure and the tremendous social inequity that spawned it remain mostly unacknowledged as the vast majority of people see this as a tragedy and hundreds of millions of dollars have already been donated to rebuild the cathedral.

Grand tragedy moves us, I realize, while gradual and persistent suffering seems to numb us; those hundreds of millions could better serve the destitute and hungry, human beings and not mere material monuments.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, many humans remain too often disturbingly un-self-aware: “‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

But there is more to consider since this grand fire has occurred in the context of three church fires in Louisiana, arson rooted in racist hatred. The attention and responses are of much different scales because the contexts of each are of much different scales driven by tremendous historical inequities that linger, especially in the U.S.

I am drawn to my conflicted feelings about Notre-Dame as I consider the online responses to Rebecca A. Reid and Todd A. Curry’s The White Man Template and Academic Bias. Reid and Curry build on some of my work:

Higher education’s white male template, as P. L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University, calls it, insidiously produces barriers for scholars throughout their entire careers, disproportionately affecting women and people of color. This template dictates certain research agendas, epistemologies, and methods as legitimate while discarding or marginalizing those that do not fit neatly within this framework. In essence, Thomas says, it “frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus ‘objective’), rendering racialized (nonwhite) and genderized (nonmale) subjectivity as the ‘other,’ as lacking credibility.”

And their central argument concludes: “Scholars who focus on critical theory, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and identities, qualitative methods and the like are marginalized because their work is supposedly not ‘objective’ science. Rather, it is political advocacy masquerading as scholarship — attractive only to specialized audiences and self-serving.”

This is ultimately a challenge to the Old Academy [1] and a call for the New Academy, suggesting, I think, that the only way to raise the New Academy is in the ashes of razing the Old Academy—something metaphorical against the very real burning of Notre-Dame.

The comments, as well, are parallel reactions to the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in the from the cultural elite to rebuild Notre-Dame; many of those responses are vigorous and shallow defenses of the Old Academy, masked as arguments for rigor and high scientific ideals.

One of my responses prompted more ire:

Many of the comments prove the points posed by Reid and Curry even as the anonymous posters believing they are disputing them. This is the exact dynamic this article addresses. A total lack of self-awareness by the white/male elites who want to pretend they are the ones being objective and they are the ones meeting high standards. From educated people, these responses are sadly embarrassing.

I do in fact find these comments embarrassing in the same way Ozymandias’s words echo inside the hollowness of his defunct glory:

“…Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Academics posting on Inside Higher Ed should know better, but one thing I have learned over the past 17 years is that the so-called Ivory Tower is just as petty and flawed as the general population; we are just people after all—although one would hope many years of learning could spark a soul in a few more people.

Some of the comments make errors in logic and argument that many of us who teach first-year writing wouldn’t allow: misrepresenting Reid and Curry in order to attack the misrepresentation among the worst.

So I have tried to offer a couple clarifying comments of my own:

…The article above calls for both a critical reconsideration of the imbalance of power and authority allowed for so-called objective research and a more equitable understanding and greater space for so-called subjective research BECAUSE the objective is in fact not any less subjective than the so-called subjective; the imbalances of power in the academy are gendered and racial and the current dynamic of what research counts is both a result of those imbalances and a cause of perpetuating them. The rebukes posted here are often myopic, self-serving, and petty, mostly very shallow defenses of the current power imbalance under a thin veneer of defending rigor and scientific standards.

And:

For example, claims of objectivity and being scientific created and perpetuates scientific racism; the introduction of critical race theory, then, provides the platform for unmasking scientific racism and thus racism. This is an argument for allowing a larger space of what counts so that all types of research have greater fidelity and validity. See The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America.

I function in two contexts that represent the conflict exposed in Reid and Curry’s article. I am the embodiment of the “white male template” and a critical scholar/activist.

As a result, I recognize that I both worked incredibly hard to achieve my academic success, my degrees and ultimately my tenured position as a full professor along with my publishing record, and benefitted from even greater privilege along all of those paths to accomplishment. As well, left mostly invisible, many of my accomplishments necessarily mean that I inhabited spaces denied to people being marginalized—women, people of color among many others.

I didn’t ask for anyone to be denied or erased, but I mostly failed to recognize those denials and erasures in my zeal for personal accomplishment. And I can attest that very few people have the moral fortitude to tumble the structures that benefit them—myself included.

Winners always think the rules of the game are fair and believe they earned their trophies by being better than the vanquished while never even considering those not allowed in the contest.

There is a great irony in the resistance to the New Academy, the clinging to the Old Academy like Emily sleeping each night with the corpse of a murdered lover who betrayed her: The New Academy will be far more demanding because of the influx of diversity and the expansion of what counts as credible research along with whose voice counts.

The Old Academy and lazy narrow conceptions of objective and scientific are ultimately simplistic and inadequate for the human experience and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Old Academy is primarily valuable to those already there; it is a security blanket of confirmation bias for the privileged who think they hit a triple when they were in fact born on third base.

Change is frightening for those made comfortable by the status quo. What Reid and Curry are calling for, the New Academy, deserves not the resistance of the white male template but the wonder and excitement of Miranda:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!


[1] The Old Academy, of course, is the current academy:

 

profs-gender

 

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What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

The November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review (National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece: What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium.

The opening editorial comment frames the need for the question:

Editorial blurb 1942.png

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time: Emmett A. Betts, E.W. Dolch, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray (first IRA president), Ernest Horn, Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE and focus of my dissertation, an educational biography), Holland Roberts, Dora V. Smith (former NCTE president), Nila Banton Smith, and Paul Witty (key figure in the career and life of LaBrant).

Unlike most cries of educational “crisis,” this national focus on reading was nested in World War II—a genuine crisis. But, according to the assembled experts on literacy, this 1942 version of the Reading Wars was a harbinger of how these debates are mostly misinformed, misguided, and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

Betts, in the opening piece, notes an important fact drawn from a report by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “One of the students had only four months of schooling, another was foreign born, some came from sections of the country where educational opportunities were meager, and so on. In short, the First Lady’s report emphasized the lack of educational opportunity [emphasis added] rather than the questionable quality of instruction” (p. 225).

Before detailing the problems and the possible solutions—including recognizing shortages and shifts in teacher availability—Betts makes a powerful claim: “In a democracy, the people get the kind of schools they want….In a democracy, the quantity and quality of educational opportunity is a product of what people want, and what they want is to no small degree conditioned by the educational leadership they have elected to follow” (pp. 225-226).

While I recommend reading the symposium responses in full, I focus below on two key answers from Gray and LaBrant.

Gray offers a solid framing of the debate spurred by claims of illiteracy among those called to serve, including this:

Gray second attitude.png

Along with refuting these standard false charges, Gray builds to a powerful closing argument:

A common error on the part of those who modify their reading programs is to adopt one or more reforms, such as the provision of much free reading, and neglect other aspects of reading that are in need of specific attention…

If the discussion thus far has achieved its purpose, it should be clear that current deficiencies in reading are not the product of “pseudo-scientific fumbling” or the use of progressive reforms, as some would have us believe. They are due in large measure either to the continued use of traditional patterns of teaching or to failure to provide a well-balanced [emphasis in original] program of reading activities that harmonize with progressive trends. (pp. 236-237)

LaBrant, in her typical style, takes a much more direct approach:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits that blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

In her conclusion, LaBrant is passionate and unyielding:

lack of drill

Within five years, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The question about reading raised in the 1940s suffered from the same failures to recognize the problem in order to shape effective and credible answers that we are confronting in 2019.

The fumbling today of the Reading Wars is yet another snapshot of a tired truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

 

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading” (Updated)

While too often inordinately dangerous* for the most vulnerable, social media can be a powerful window into how we think about and judge education. Recently, the reading wars have been once again invigorated; this time driven often by parents and advocates for students with special needs and accompanied by a very familiar refrain, the “science of reading.”

One problem with public debate about education is that political and public voices often lack experience and expertise in education as well as any sort of historical context.

First, those who have studied the history of education, and specifically the ever-recurring reading wars, know that there has never been a decade in the last 100+ years absent political and public distress about a reading crisis.

However, one doesn’t need a very long memory to recognize that if we currently are (finally?) having a reading crisis, it comes in the wake of almost two decades (nested in a larger four decades of accountability birthed under Ronald Reagan) dedicated to scientifically-based education policy, specifically reading policy driven by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

The NRP was touted as (finally?) a clearing house of high-quality evidence on teaching children to read (although it proved itself to be partisan hokum).

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

For example, I noticed a very odd dynamic on social media: a post on a community Facebook page for advocates of education that was linked to a dyslexia Facebook page promoting this from Mississippi:

MS gains propaganda

The message included dramatic arguments: Mississippi has somehow found the science of reading and is excelling in ways South Carolina refuses to do.

Knowing standardized test scores, and NAEP specifically, well, I was immediately skeptical of these claims.

Here is the short version: In 2017 NAEP data, MS is slightly ahead of SC in 4th-grade reading (both states remain near the bottom and below the national average), but SC is slightly ahead of MS in 8th-grade reading (again, both near the bottom and below the national average):

4th reading 2017

8th reading 2017

While Mississippi is promoting gains (accurately), the data remain clear that high-poverty states tend to score low on standardized testing while more affluent states tend to score higher.

What is extremely important to note is that some traditionally low scoring states have found methods (test-prep, reading programs focused on raising test scores, and grade retention) that increase test scores short term (making for political propaganda), but those gains have proven to be a mirage, disappearing in the span between 3rd/4th- grade tests to 8th-grade tests and then high school (see, for example, research on Florida).

So we sit here with some real problems and questions: Is there a reading crisis in the U.S. and my home state of SC? And if so, is that crisis somehow the result of refusing to implement the science of reading?

Well, first, I need to note that the “science of reading” is code for intensive phonics and is intended as an antidote to the current evil in reading, balanced literacy.

Now, consider this: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar event happened when people started shouting about the reading crisis in California spawned by whole language (now, people claim balanced literacy and whole language are the same thing, and thus, equally evil).

Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, unmasked that round of the reading wars, noting that although CA claimed whole language as the official reading approach of the state, teachers were almost never practicing whole language.

Further, the reading score plummet of those years did correlate with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).

This isn’t particularly simple or compelling but let’s detail why this recent round of the reading wars is way off base:

  • Standardized tests of reading are only proxies of reading, typically they reduce reading to a series of discrete skills that test designers claim add up to reading. This is at least inadequate, if not misleading. No standardized test measures eagerness and joy for reading, as well; nearly none address critical literacy.
  • Making raising reading test scores your primary or exclusive goal is actually cheating all students. Period. And this is what many states are doing, including MS.
  • Achieving test score gains when you are low scoring is much easier that making gains when you are high achieving.
  • Adopting, implementing, and staying focused on any reading program—these are also very common practices, and completely flawed approaches to literacy. Access to books in the home and choice reading remain the strongest predictors of increased reading and reading achievement.
  • Ultimately, if we insist on using reading test scores to judge the quality of teaching reading in any state or the country, we must acknowledge that how students are being taught is both almost impossible to identify and completely impossible to characterize as one clear practice (teachers are very likely to shut their doors and do as they please, regardless of policies).
  • And most important is the fact that standardized test scores of reading are a reflection of a large number of factors, with teaching practices only one (probably small) causal factor.

To that last point, consider this matrix of 2017 NAEP reading scores (4th/8th) along with the poverty in each state, the African American population percentage, and the Hispanic/Latinx population percentage. These data portray a much more complex picture of the reading problem, and resist the distraction that how students are being taught reading is cheating students, who could be saved by the “science of reading” (which, by the way, is balanced literacy—o, irony):

[Click links above each chart for expanded charts with grade retention legislation identified.]

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 1

NAEP reading 2017 1

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 2

NAEP reading 2017 2

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 3

NAEP reading 2017 3

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 4

NAEP reading 2017 4

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 5

NAEP reading 2017 5

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 6

NAEP reading 2017 6

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 7

NAEP reading 2017 7

The “science of reading” mantra is a Big Lie, but it is also a huge and costly distraction from some real problems.

Relatively affluent states still tend to score above average or average on reading tests; relatively poor states tend to score below average on reading tests.

Some states that historically scored low, under the weight of poverty and the consequences of conservative political ideology that refuses to address that poverty, have begun to implement harmful policies to raise test scores (see the magenta highlighting) in the short-term for political points.

It is 2019. There is no reading crisis in the way the “science of reading” advocates are claiming.

It is 2019. Balanced literacy is the science of reading, but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.

It is 2019. Political and public efforts to do anything—often the wrong thing—so no one addresses poverty remain the American Way.

It is 2019. It is still mostly about poverty when people insist it is about reading and reading policy.


* This opening has been revised because I made a careless error by making an analogy using the “Wild West,” seeking an engaging opening but making a culturally insensitive comparison instead. I regret this use of phrasing, but also appreciate being kindly informed of my carelessness in private. I try to listen to such concerns, and kindness, and am learning every day to be a better person, and writer.


Third-Grade Reading Legislation

3rd grade retention legislation

“Despite the Data”: Higher Education Fails Equity, Inclusion with SETs

Entering higher education in my early 40s after 18 successful years as a high school English teacher, I remain 17 years later baffled and even disappointed at the mess of contradictions that characterizes an institution populated by the most educated people possible.

Immediately I had to hold my tongue against the pervasive culture of college professors bemoaning constantly how busy they are. When my high school teaching career ended, I was wearing a wrist brace because I was hand marking about 4000 essays and 6000 journals per year while teaching five course and about 100 students (many colleagues taught 20+ more students per year).

I also coached many of those years, with work days from about 7:30 AM until 10 or 11 PM in the evening.

By contrast, I teach two first-year writing courses each fall (as part of my full load, a minimum of five course per academic year), a total of 24 students, and my teaching schedule tends to be three days a week, often a Monday evening class included.

The Ivory Tower effect is a bit more accurate than I would prefer.

More disturbing, however, is the power of tradition among academics, a dynamic that works against practices and policies being based on evidence (and thus in a state of flux when that evidence changes).

While the U.S. has a long history of characterizing and even demonizing higher education as some sort of liberal cult, the truth is that the very worst qualities of higher education are from its conservative urges as institutions.

Of course, you can find a disproportionate number of professors who have left-leaning social and philosophical ideologies, but the most powerful department/colleges in higher education are often the most conservative—political science, economics—or the most apt to take non-political poses—the hard sciences.

This disconnect between how higher education is perceived and how higher education exists stems from, in part, I think, higher education presenting itself rhetorically as progressive—mission statements, social justice initiatives, etc.

However, with a little unpacking, we can expose that practices and policies often contradict and even work against that rhetoric and those initiatives.

One example that I have addressed again and again is the use of student evaluations of teaching (SET) to drive significantly the promotion, tenure, and reward process.

Consider a few points raised in Colleges Are Getting Smarter About Student Evaluations. Here’s How by Kristen Doerer:

“Having a female instructor is correlated with higher student achievement,” Wu said, but female instructors received systematically lower course evaluations. In looking at prerequisite courses, the two researchers found a negative correlation between students’ evaluations and learning. “If you took the prerequisite class from a professor with high student teaching evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “you were likely, everything else equal, to do worse in the second class.”

The team found numerous studies with similar findings. “It replicates what many, many other people found,” said Harbaugh. “But to see it at my own university, I sort of felt like I had to do something about it.”…

Studies since the 1980s have found gender bias in student evaluations and, since the early 2000s, have found racial bias as well. A 2016 study of data from the United States and France found that students’ teaching evaluations “measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” and that more-effective instructors got lower ratings than others did….

Despite the data, at many colleges, particularly research-based institutions, student evaluations are still the main measure, if not the only one, of teaching effectiveness in promotion-and-tenure decisions.

Common among universities and colleges across the U.S., diversity and inclusion are pervasive problems. Poor students and students of color are underrepresented in many colleges, especially the so-called elite institutions; women and people of color are equally underrepresented on faculties.

Nothing rings more true or frustrating than Doerer’s use of “despite the data.”

I have rejected SETs directly in my bi-annual self-evaluation for merit raises. I have consistently advocated the administration and our faculty status committee to end or greatly reduce the influence of SETs.

In all of the situations, I have repeatedly shared the research, the data:

And without fail, those with power, who tend to be white men, offer a tepid acknowledgement of the research followed by a quick “But we have to do something.” Doerer includes a response (from a white man) that sounds all too familiar:

Ken Ryalls, president of the IDEA Center, a nonprofit higher-education consulting organization, recognizes the bias but thinks doing away with evaluations isn’t the answer. He opposes efforts to eliminate the voice of students. “It seems ludicrous,” he said, “to have the hubris to think that students sitting in the classroom have nothing to tell us.”

“The argument that you should get rid of student evaluations because there is bias inherently is a bit silly,” he said. “Because basically every human endeavor has bias.”

The “yes, but” dynamic works to maintain the inequitable status quo. And as Ryalls’s comment shows, the “yes, but” response is often a distraction.

No one is arguing to remove the voice of students, but as Doerer’s reporting confronts and as the research base shows, student evaluations of teaching are fraught with student biases that corrupt the teacher evaluation process, effectively discouraging women, people of color, and international faculty from remaining in a hostile environment with very real negative career consequences.

For example, calls to end SETs a primary or major instruments for promotion, tenure, and merit pay are often part of a larger examination of how to make student feedback more effective for teaching and learning.

Doerer notes:

That’s in large part why Oregon decided to try a midterm student-experience survey that only the applicable faculty member can view. An instructor can make changes in the middle of a semester, when students can still benefit, encouraging them to give constructive feedback.

For many years, I have asked students for feedback at midterm, and explained that I would like the opportunity to address their concerns, and also to identify what is working well, because receiving complaints after a course really benefits no one.

Further, when student feedback is for the professor only, it becomes a conversation about improving teaching and learning, and as a professor myself, I am best equipped to interpret student comments. I consistently receive feedback intended as negative by students, but will never change them because they misunderstand my role and their roles in the classroom.

Yes, student feedback is valuable, but it likely cannot be simply or easily reduced to numbers, formulas, or even verbatim interpretations of their direct words.

It has taken nearly four decades of high-stakes accountability in K-12 education for people to begin to acknowledge that high-stakes accountability causes far more harm than good.

In higher education, if equity and inclusion are real goals, we can and must seek ways that students have safe and open spaces for providing their professors feedback, we can and must better support faculty in how to interpret that feedback in ways that improve their teaching and student learning, but to reach those goals, we must end the practice of using SETs in significant ways to evaluate faculty.

Higher education must end the tradition of “despite the data,” recognize that rhetoric means less than nothing if contradicted by practices, policies, and a culture of “yes, but.”

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

English educator Lou LaBrant taught in a wide variety of contexts for 65 years while also producing a significant body of scholarship from the 1920s into the late 1980s. Her career was nearly as prodigious as her attitude.

Writing in 1931, for example, LaBrant announces: “The cause for my wrath is not new or single” (p. 245). Her “wrath” was pointedly aimed at the rise of the project method in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Projects, LaBrant noticed, began to dwarf, and even replace, time students spent on authentic literacy—students reading and writing by choice, the practices LaBrant advocated for over decades as “scientific.”

As I write this 9 decades later, project based learning (PBL) is, once again, all the rage. And from my perspective, similar to LaBrant’s, I watch as teachers and students are put in impossible teaching/learning situations all in the service of “doing PBL.”

While PBL flourishes in my home state of South Carolina, I also have witnessed throughout the past four decades a mind-numbing parade of new standards, new high-stakes tests, and new regulations and processes for certifying and evaluating teachers.

Formal teacher education and K-12 education suffer from the same problem LaBrant wrestled with her entire career—the misapplication of scientific principles in the pursuit of codifying “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

The current teacher evaluation rubric (with over 400 indicators) SC teacher educators and evaluators must navigate is disturbing proof that we have chosen The Hulk (the monster misguided science produces) over Bruce Banner (the measured scientist) in our unbridled lust to control how teachers teach and how students learn.

The Incredible Hulk showed the transformation of scientist Bruce Banner into the green monster.
The Incredible Hulk 1 (vol. 1) offers a powerful contrast between the scientist and the potential monster science can produce.

LaBrant resonates with me because I have existed in the field of education for almost 40 years now in a constant state of “wrath” because of one of the most disturbing dichotomies that define the field—the disconnect between pedagogy and expertise.

This disconnect, or false tension, is best reflected in the on-going discussions about teaching writing. To teach writing well, many of us argue, teachers must have some authentic experience and expertise in writing themselves; without that expertise, all the pedagogy one can attain is ultimately inadequate.

Expertise grounds teaching, I think, in authentic goals, also essential for any pedagogy or program to be effective.

For example, best practices in writing instruction, a well-planned and implemented workshop model, is for naught if teachers are mandating students produce five-paragraph essays that are driven by a prompt and rubric mandated by the teacher.

Now here is the problem: A seasoned and active professional writer would fair little better if tossed into a teaching situation with no experience or expertise in evidence-based pedagogy.

This false dichotomy is well represented by the contrast between K-12 teaching and higher education. K-12 is dominated by the belief that anyone can teach anything if equipped with pedagogy, programs, and accountability (see The Hulk rubric now governing teaching in SC I have confronted in the link above); higher education embraces a laissez-faire norm that anyone can teach when equipped with expertise.

My second career as a teacher educator has proven to me what I long suspected as a high school English teacher for 18 years: There are profound limits to our urge for discovering and prescribing “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

I have railed against this often, but I call this our technocratic urge, a perverse and dangerous form of “scientific” (again, The Hulk, not Bruce Banner).

During the early decades of LaBrant’s career, there was a relatively balanced tension among educational philosophies and theories that included at least two factions using the term “scientific” in dramatically different ways.

John Dewey’s progressivism, which LaBrant practiced, argued for an amorphous, classroom-based approach to what today we would call action research (each teacher is a researcher-in-practice with every different class of students). The goal here recognized that students and learning are fluid and relative.

To teach, Dewey tried to advocate, is to experiment, perpetually. What works for one student today may not work for another on that same day, in that same lesson. And what works in a lesson or unit this year may inform a future lesson or unit, but it certainly can never be reduced to a template for future teaching.

Dewey’s scientific lost, however, to the efficiency educators who sought a different type of “scientific”—one that identified a fixed prescription for what “good” teaching must look like and what “student achievement” must conform to.

Today as a teacher educator in SC, I am supposed to learn The Hulk rubric and then I am supposedly equipped to visit any teachers classroom, regardless of grade level or content, and be able to make a credible assessment if the teacher is effective or not.

This cult of pedagogy, I think, has only one compelling quality, efficiency. This is the same problem with education’s pursuit of “the” program, such as PBL. Design a program, detail the parameters of what make the program “work,” and then anyone can observe to simply verify if the program is being met.

Having taught now about an equal time—almost two decades each—as a K-12 teacher and a college professor, I am far more disturbed by the cult of pedagogy in K-12 than the laissez-faire, and even dismissive, attitude about pedagogy in higher ed.

A colleague in economics once confessed to me that he held conservative ideologies in economics and liberal social beliefs. As a result, he had decided to function mostly as a Democrat because, he believed, it was easier to teach Democrats better economics than to make Republican “give a damn” about human suffering.

I find this fits the false dichotomy I have examined here. I worry that we have two problems in teaching and learning—fostering expertise in “generalist” teachers (K-12) and fostering a greater understanding of and respect for pedagogy in experts (higher education). I suspect the latter is easier.

LaBrant ended her unpacking of the project method with a key element of how “scientific” can work in education. Science at its best requires that we define problems, generate evidence, and then conform the solutions to the problems.

The project method, LaBrant noted, was missing an obvious solution as educators lamented students either not reading or lacking reading ability:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

Our rubrics and programs are the wrong goals, the wrong solutions, even as we occasionally recognize the problems of needing “good” teachers in order to increase student achievement.

Neither pedagogy nor expertise is itself the solution, but a complex understand of how both of these work together helps us seek the best possible pursuit of science and avoid the monster we currently embrace.

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

To be conservative is to resist change and to advocate for keeping things as they are.

In South Carolina, with its long history of conservative politics, culture, and religion, that means keeping the complaints the same (public education is failing) and keeping the solutions the same (disregarding that these solutions neither match the problems nor have worked in any way over the last thirty-plus years).

So here we go again, reported by Anna Lee at The Greenville News:

Greenville County legislators vowing to make education reform a top priority on Tuesday publicized an education agenda from the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute.

The Help Our Pupils Excel plan would reformat the state’s education system by addressing “root problems in finance structure, accountability and equity of opportunity for our rural schools,” members of the Greenville County House Delegation said in a letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas.

Lee outlines the reform plan as the following:

  • Streamline and fix South Carolina’s education funding formula. The current formula is overly complex, according to the Palmetto Promise Institute, and “research shows that there is zero connection between how money is spent and actual student costs.”
  • Cut bureaucracy and consolidate small and shrinking school districts with less than 2,500 students. These districts “simply must be incentivized or compelled to consolidate,” the institute said.
  • Provide more education options for parents and students. The plan calls for expanding VirtualSC, the state’s online public learning program, and to create education scholarship accounts, which would give parents direct access to their child’s state student funding formula. Parents could spend the money on approved services their child needs, such as therapy or tutoring, according to the institute.
  • Support teachers. The H.O.P.E. plan calls for more pay flexibility for districts to reward and retain teachers “based on talent and effectiveness, rather than only years-in-service or degrees.”

However, if you search the origin of this plan at the Palmetto Promise Institute, here are the eight grounding proposals:

  1. Let the Education Finance Act (EFA) work.
  2. Equitably fund all forms of public education [Note: charter schools are specifically identified.].
  3. Expand & codify exceptional needs scholarships & credits [“private school choice programs”].
  4. Enact Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
  5. Unleash more online options.
  6. Create true public school open/option enrollment.
  7. Establish an Achievement School District (ASD).
  8. Incent excellence in teaching & school leadership. (Headings taken from Fast facts PDF)

While the headline repeats the refrain of the think tank, “bold,” the truth is that this plan is warmed over conservative ideology that has failed public education again and again.

Most of the reforms are just elements of school choice, charter school advocacy, and school takeover schemes (achievement districts)—each of which has been thoroughly discredited by research (the one element that apparently must be avoided in order to be “bold”).

Below is a reader, then, discrediting this plan, yet again, as baseless conservative ideology that is poised to exploit and further fail public education in South Carolina—not offer our students and our communities the equity of opportunity all people deserve in a free society:

In short, this so-called “bold” reform plan is nothing new. It is the same old mantra of pet conservative political projects SC and the entire nation have suffered under since the early 1980s.

For example, at the heart of the school choice advocacy, charter schools are no better, and often worse, than traditional public schools. Private schools (driven entirely by choice) are also no better than public schools.

Yet, charter schools and private schools contribute significantly to segregation and inequity—both of which are key sources of problems in public schooling in SC.

Broadly, school takeovers (achievement districts, etc.) and school choice create a great deal of churn, but have failed badly the promises made by conservative politicians.

Regretfully, this bogus plan has proven my recent prediction accurate; especially in SC, conservative politicians are doggedly bound to pointing fingers at the same problems, ones they themselves have allowed to fester and even made worse by repackaging and offering again and again failed conservative ideology as solutions in the form of a Trojan Horse named, this time, “bold.”

Dark Histories Cast Shadows over Diversity Initiatives in Higher Education

Sitting 30 miles apart, two upstate South Carolina universities seem to have mostly proximity in common. Furman University is a small, selective, and private liberal arts college while nearby public, land-grant Clemson University is the second largest research university in the state, touting a high-profile football program.

Yet, these universities represent higher education’s struggles with dark histories and a stubborn gap between faculty and student demographics compared to the communities and states they serve.

Private colleges with restrictive admission guidelines and higher costs have long struggled with diversity, but “[a] growing number of public universities are becoming less affordable and accessible for low-income students and people of color,” reports Ashley A. Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

In one ranking from 2016, Clemson (HHI 0.707) sat 98 among the top 100 universities, even less diverse than Furman (HHI 0.662), ranking 85 among the top 100 liberal arts colleges*. Both schools serve, notably, South Carolina with a black population of 26% (national rate 12%).

While many universities have begun reckoning with their histories as well as committing to diversity initiatives, diversity goals for faculty and student populations mirroring the general public remain elusive.

Reckoning with, Not Erasing, the Past

One permanent shadow appears to be Tillman Hall on the campus of Clemson University, the source of a contentious 2015 debate among students, faculty, administration, and the community.

Tillman Hall is named for former SC governor and senator Benjamin Tillman, who also founded Winthrop University (Rock Hill, SC). Will Moredock explains, “Modern historians generally regard Tillman as a fire-breathing racist, opportunist, and demagogue who played on the worst of human nature to promote himself to the highest levels of state government.”

The lack of action by administration concerning Tillman Hall spurred a student organization formed about a year earlier, See the Stripes, to continue urging Clemson toward greater diversity and inclusion:

The central idea of See The Stripes is an acknowledgement that The Tiger has stripes, which are an integral part of its existence and survival. While The Tiger could be seen as “Solid Orange” a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes. Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged—particularly the histories of laborers who contributed significantly to its development: slaves, sharecroppers and convict laborers.

The Tillman Hall stalemate represents one powerful hurdle for diversity goals at a university when the past remains an unaddressed stain on the present.

Furman’s reckoning has come in the form of a Task Force on Slavery and Justice, prompted by a new provost, and a diversity and inclusion committee charged by the university president.

The Task Force report, Seeking Abraham, confronts slavery and  racism in the founding of the university, but also details a roadmap of actions for moving forward as an essential part of creating a university community that is more inclusive.

Good Intentions, Rhetoric Not Enough

None the less, Furman student Juhee Bhatt blogged that good intentions of diversity initiatives are not enough:

Inclusiveness is much more than portraying students of color in news articles or acknowledging Furman’s role in slavery. Inclusiveness is an unfolding process of action that affirms the humanity of each minority on campus, it is not only displaying a headshot…or working to strengthen diversity statistics. Inclusivity is not a one-step process, rather it demands individuality and intentionality.

Across the U.S., college and universities employ faculty that are disproportionately white and male (especially at the higher ranks) and serve students channeled through narrowing admission processes and limited by increasing costs.

Further, diversity initiatives are often dulled by external forces, such as undermatching, and suffer from student and faculty skepticism about programs that seem to be more rhetoric than action, as Bhatt expresses.

Another challenge for diversity and inclusion programs is implementation, too often targeting diverse populations instead of acknowledging that diversity and inclusion awareness must be for all stakeholders—especially majority populations.

“Inclusivity Is Not a One-step Process”

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report outlines the complex ways that colleges and universities can better attain diversity goals. These steps include more than diversity and inclusion programs, but include the following:

  • Creating mission statements to provide a context and foundation for action and policy.
  • Recognizing diversity must pervade the entire campus—faculty, administration, staff, and students—in ways reflecting the rhetoric of those mission statements.
  • Prioritizing diversity through admissions and hiring practices.
  • Providing diverse populations with on-campus support.
  • Establishing and maintaining inclusive climates as a precursor to increasing quantifiable diversity throughout the institution.
  • Resisting silver bullets, and dedicating funds and policy to a “multi-pronged commitment to diversity,” as the USDOE report concludes.

The U.S. must have colleges and universities where faculty, staff, and students represent the entire spectrum of diversity within the communities they serve, but commitments to diversity and inclusion must be more than banners, rhetoric, and public relations if those goals are to be met.


* The ranking index used (HHI): “A student body that is entirely White would have an HHI of 1. A student body that is equally made up of people from five different racial groups would have an HHI of 0.2.”