The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.


Does Your Academic Institution Value Diversity, Equity? (Probably Not)

Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.

Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.

A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.

This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.

However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.

A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty [1].

“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).

White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.

But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?

Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.

Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.

Notably, a significant body of research [2] has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).

Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.

Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”

As Colleen Flaherty explains:

While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.

For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”

“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.

Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.

Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.

No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.

“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.

As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.

While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.

See Also

Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards

[1] See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:

I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

[2] See:

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

In one of the last class sessions of my education foundations course, a student I had taught in a first-year writing seminar the semester before posed a question while being nearly exasperated: To paraphrase, she wondered allowed why education had such a problem with how classroom practices often contradict what the research base shows is (for lack of a better term) best practice.

Since I have repeatedly addressed in my public and scholarly work Lou LaBrant’s masterful charge about the historical (and current) “considerable gap” between practice and research, I chose to help walk students through unpacking her question by asking them first who controlled the fields of medicine and law.

We tended to agree that doctors and lawyers mostly (although certainly not exclusively) had the greatest authority and autonomy in their fields.

By contrast, education in the U.S. is primarily public institutions at the K-12 and higher education levels, and thus, education as a discipline is significantly barricaded from education as a practice by legislation, bureaucracy, and a public discourse dominated by disciplines other than education—economics, psychology, and political science.

Embedded in that bureaucracy, we must also note, is the authority of administrators, a subset of eduction as a field that is in many ways disconnected from pedagogy, if not antagonistic to teacher autonomy.

Education as a discipline, then, suffers under the weight of being routinely declared a failure as well as an inadequate field while simultaneously being denied authority and autonomy in its practice, the very thing being used as evidence of its failure.

So, in 2018, we have yet another example of the on-going problem in the so-called publication of record on the field of education, Education WeekWhen It Comes to Public Education, the Nation Is Still at Risk.

Thomas Toch grounds his commentary is a praising and uncritical embracing of A Nation as Risk—although that report has been thoroughly discredited as a partisan hatchet job masquerading as research (see Gerald Holton here and here as well as Gerald Bracey).

Few things better represent all that is wrong with education as a discipline and profession than how A Nation at Risk (as a partisan political sham) came to drive policy by claiming “research” and “scientific” while being any but.

But the relentless bashing of education and then teacher education certainly did not stop with the rise of standards and high-stakes testing in the form of the accountability movement after Reagan; it was reinvigorated under W. Bush, and then Obama doubled down even further.

No Child Left Behind took its cue from A Nation at Risk, in fact.

This brings me to a recent Twitter discussion representing the reading wars debate that will just not die.

Let’s join that sort of in media res with Daniel Willingham refuting some claims made by Carol Black quoting from my blog post:

This Twitter exchange holds almost all of the elements I am confronting in this post: the disciplinary arrogance of economics, psychology, and political science (disciplines that routinely impose themselves in education as if the field dose not exist); the veneer provided by claiming “research” and “scientific” among hard-core phonics advocates; and the irony of the “research” crowd embracing partisan reports that fail as credible research.

First, let me clarify that I have taken a very clear stand against how the media embrace scholars from outside the fields of education and literacy when they arrogantly impose on those fields—for example, Willingham and Mark Seidenberg.

Next, it is illustrative that Willingham’s rebuttal of my criticism, in fact, provides proof of my point: His NYT’s op-ed is both a sweeping discrediting of teachers (since teacher educators are teachers) and, as Toch does, Willingham offers an uncritical embracing of the National Reading Panel (NRP), a partisan hack job powerfully refuted by Joanne Yatvin.

The NRP report serves a different purpose than it intended since it represents how partisan politics combined with unchallenged claims of “research” and “scientific” provide cover for everything that is wrong with the discipline of education being blocked from having authority and autonomy in the practice of education, specifically how reading is taught in US public schools.

If you skim through the discussion after I responded to Willingham, you also witness the problems with the cult of phonics, how advocates for phonics simultaneously beat the drum for “research” and “scientific” while refusing to engage with the field of literacy and reading in an honest way.

For example, whole language and balanced literacy are misrepresented and then those misrepresentations are attacked. Both whole language and balanced literacy are evidence-based approaches to teaching reading that include phonics instruction (just as writing pedagogy includes grammar instruction); however, phonics advocates typically frame them as hostile to phonics as well as not supported by “research” (something dishonestly posed by the NRP).

In other words, this Twitter debate exposes that far too often educational research and practice are highjacked for partisan political and ideological concerns as well as bureaucratic and market ones (phonics advocacy is significantly driven by the textbook and testing industries, for example).

If we return to my student’s question that is echoes in this Twitter debate grounded in Willingham’s sweeping dismissal of teacher education, we are faced with a real dilemma.

LaBrant’s charge that a “considerable gap” exists between evidence and practice exists today, but not in the way or for the reasons stated and implied by Willingham.

Literacy as a sub-discipline of education is not bereft of research, and it is not populated by incompetent professionals who do not know or teach that research base.

Education and literacy scholars are often women, and at its core, the fields suffer from some of the lingering sexism that hovers just beneath why economists, psychologists, and political scientists feel compelled to speak over education as a discipline.

Concurrent with that uncomfortable fact, however, is a damning dynamic captured in Applebee and Langer’s analysis of writing instruction in formal schooling; they concluded something that also explains virtually every problem found in why so many are compelled to declare education a failure: Applebee and Langer discovered that although teachers today know more than ever about best practice in teaching writing (and despite the field of composition being more robust than ever), teachers overwhelmingly disclosed that they are not able to implement that knowledge because of the mandates anchored in standards and high-stakes testing.

As I argued in the Twitter debate, whether or not teacher educators of literacy are teaching as Willingham wants, it doesn’t matter because when teachers enter the field they are being mandated to teach to the tests that measure standards. Teachers in the US have very little to no professional autonomy.

So I want to circle back to the more narrow issue of balanced literacy, a concept rejected by phonics advocates.

At its core, balanced literacy is about having highly expert teachers of literacy who then have the professional autonomy to individualize instruction for all students so that every student excels in literacy.

Intensive phonics programs and textbooks as well as isolated phonics testing (such as DIBELS) are the antithesis of that expertise and professional autonomy—just as the standards and high-stakes testing machine is.

I am not at all dissuaded from my not-so-modest proposal that all disciplines deserve their own autonomy and professionalism, that education has been denied that autonomy and professionalism because of sexism and the corrosive influence of bureaucracy and partisan politics.

This recent Twitter debate captures all that in a way that is relatively concise with many players inadvertently proving my points.

But, alas, I am not hopeful of having made any progress because, you know, I am but a lowly education scholar and practitioner, one mired even lower in the field of literacy.


For Further Consideration

Please note that, like economics, psychology has much to do to keep its own house in order; maybe slamming other disciplines serves as distraction:

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

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


Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

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 the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. 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.

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. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, 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).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.

[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

These may have seemed petty or just pet peeves to my students, but I would not tolerate this sort of framing in student essays about literature:

Emily Dickinson says, “Because I could not stop for Death – /He kindly stopped for me –.”

William Shakespeare is often quoted as saying “brevity is the soul of wit.”

In the first example, I would note that poems have speakers, some personae that may or may not be the poet. I encouraged students to take great care to identify “speaker” if a specific voice isn’t identified in the poem along with nudging them to avoid the lazy “say” verb choice.

The second example is far more vexing since it makes the same error (the line is spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, and is not Shakespeare expressing a pithy idea); however, it is far more flawed since the phrase absent the context of the character speaking and the play itself allows people to completely misrepresent the line as a truism—instead of acknowledging that it is a hollow claim of a blowhard.

What I was teaching students included a couple of broad and narrow lessons about writing: one, broad, captures the need for precision in writing that is far more nuanced than what many expect in speaking, for example, and two, narrow, teaches some of the nuances of writing in the discipline of literary analysis.

It is at that second and narrow lesson I want to focus on some of the strategies connected with helping students develop a toolbox as writers that supports them shifting gears among different disciplines.

For example, let’s think about how students must navigate (too often without explicit instruction) the conventions of the humanities (writing in English or history courses) and the conventions of the social sciences (writing in psychology, sociology, education).

Two ways we fail students in those contexts include laying almost all of writing instruction at the feet of English teachers (K-12) and first-year writing instructors (as a one-shot inoculation), and then focusing too narrowly on the mechanics of citation style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) instead of the broader approaches to writing in the disciplines that those styles support.

In all of my courses—first-year writing, foundations education, upper-level writing/research, graduate—I require extensive writing assignments, and students consistently demonstrate a lack of awareness about disciplinary expectations for writing. Primarily, they come to writing assignments with literary analysis and MLA “rules” that they impose on all types of writing.

Therefore, some of the nuances I must address include the following:

  • In the humanities, source-based writing tends to focus on textual analysis of a primary source supported by secondary sources. Writing in the social sciences rarely involves textual analysis (except when including critical discourse analysis), but asks the writer to synthesize bodies of research to address key topics or questions.
  • Therefore, writing in the humanities often explicitly identifies authors and titles directly in the flow of sentence and discussions: “In her ‘Vesuvius at Home,’ poet Adrienne Rich explains, ‘But of course Dickinson’s relationships with women were more than intellectual.'” As well, writers in the humanities may explore one source at a time (both primary and secondary) to make a larger case about the primary source being addressed (for example, Rich examining the poetry of Dickinson).
  • However, writing in the social sciences synthesizes patterns of claims and conclusions across several sources, and thus, authors and titles rarely appear in the flow of sentences with attributions mostly parenthetical or in end/footnotes: “For this volume on comic books, then, interrogating the medium in the context of race is extremely complex because comic books are a significant subset of popular culture (increasingly so with the rise of superhero films based on comic books throughout the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries), which necessarily both reflects and perpetuates all aspects of the culture it serves—including bigotries such as sexism, racism, classism, jingoism, and homophobia (McWilliams, 2009; Rhoades, 2008a, 2008b; Singer, 2002; Thomas, 2010; Wright, 2001).”
  • In the context of the second and third bullet, then, students must confront that writing in the humanities often requires direct quoting, but writing in the social sciences prefers synthesis (often oversimplified as paraphrasing*). Here, there are disciplinary contexts for how a writer supports claims that contradicts most students’ belief that all writing requires quoting.

These problems for students as writers and for teachers of writing also complicate my argument against templates and my commitment to students choosing their type of essays and topics.

Since writing and teaching writing are extremely complicated, then, I want to end here with how I have organized my upper-level writing/research course around commitments to scaffolding assignments, student topic choices, and supporting students as writers confronted with a variety of writing modes and disciplinary expectations.

Students have three major writing assignments—annotated bibliographies (sources that serve as the foundation for their scholarly essay), a major scholarly essay on an educational topic of their choice, and a public commentary incorporating hyperlinks for support and addressing the same topic as their scholarly essay but for a lay audience.

After students gather evidence that an educational topic has been covered often in the mainstream media, they choose that topic to investigate the research base, producing 8-10 annotated bibliographies of high-quality sources. In this process, students practice evaluating sources and also refine their skills in APA formatting (focusing on the bibliographies).

After they submit the first draft of the annotated bibliographies, we discuss how social scientists write, contrasting that to their humanities/MLA assumptions (addressed above). In a class workshop format, I then ask them to revise the annotations (and edit the bibliographies) by focusing on discussing the content of the research, and not announcing authors and titles. For example, a first draft includes: “DeLeon suggests that the archetype of the “urban” criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.” Then revised as: “The archetype of the ‘urban’ criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.”

The major scholarly essay challenges them next in several ways. The recommended structure includes the following: a personal narrative or narrative opening (supported by Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative), a section applying critical discourse analysis to several media reports on an educational topic (requiring them to analyze text and quote, similar to their humanities background), a section that is a mini-literature review of the research on the topic of choice (requiring them to write as a social scientist, synthesizing their annotated bibliographies, and practice the nuances of APA citation), and a closing (introducing them to the concept of framing, in which they return to their opening narrative in order to frame their essay focus—either that the media misrepresent or credibly represent the topic they chose).

The scholarly essay demands that students shift modes and investigate purpose as writers; the assignment is not prescriptive or narrowly prompted, but it is structured while also being demanding (although each student and I discuss how to revise that initial plan if the topic demands a different approach).

After drafting a scholarly essay using formal citation, students then condense what they have discovered into a much briefer (750-1250 words) commentary that incorporates hyperlink support and addresses a lay audience. Here, students must reconsider diction and sentence formation while also being more selective about using evidence. On that last point, we discuss the need to use individual examples that are accurate reflections of generalizations; in other words, focusing on one source but being careful that it fairly represents the body of research they have examined in their scholarly work.

This process, I think, helps represent how complex both writing and teaching writing are. Further, it shows that we serve our students best by avoiding writing assignments and instruction that oversimplifies the writing process and products (not asking students to write a narrative, but inviting them to integrate the narrative mode in service of a larger cohesive essay, genre, and discipline).

Where templates and prescription fail, we must seek ways to provide structure and scaffolding so that students can have multiple experiences shifting disciplinary gears as writers.

* Students admit that they have tended to use a passage from one source at a time and paraphrased by looking up synonyms one word at a time in that passage.

The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

Man Prefers Comic Books That Don’t Insert Politics Into Stories About Government-Engineered Agents Of War (The Onion) includes a simple picture of a 31-year-old white male with the hint of a soon-to-be Van Dyke:

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

“I’m tired of simply trying to enjoy escapist stories in which people are tortured and experimented upon at black sites run by authoritarian governments, only to have the creators cram political messages down my throat,” said Land, 31, who added that Marvel’s recent additions of female, LGBTQ, and racially diverse characters to long-running story arcs about tyrannical regimes turning social outsiders into powerful killing machines felt like PC propaganda run amok. “Look, I get that politics is some people’s thing, but I just want to read good stories about people whose position outside society makes them easy prey for tests run by amoral government scientists—without a heavy-handed allegory for the Tuskegee Study thrown in. Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?”

The satire here is the whitesplaining/mansplaining inherent in the politics of calling for no politics.

It strains the imagination only slightly to understand how this commentary on comic book fanboys also parallels the persistent combination in education of calling for no politics while using policy and a narrow definition of data and evidence to mask the racial and gender politics of formal schooling.

Let’s imagine, then, instead of the fictional Land an image of David Coleman (who parlayed his Common Core boondoggle into a cushy tenure as the head of the College Board) or John Hattie (he of the “poverty and class size do not matter” cults that provide Hattie with a gravy train as guru-consultant).

A close reading of David Coleman’s mug shot reveals a whole lot of smug.

In his “visible learning” hustle, John Hattie likely prefers to keep his enormous profits invisible.

Coleman and Hattie as technocrats feed the systemic racism, classism, and sexism in formal education policy and practice by striking and perpetuating an objective pose that serves as a veneer for the normalized politics of political and economic elites in the U.S.

As Daniel E. Ferguson examines, Coleman’s Common Core propaganda, the rebranded traditional mis-use of New Criticism into “close reading,” argues:

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

However, Ferguson adds,

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

And thus, close reading serves the cult of efficiency found in the high-stakes standardized testing industry that depends on the allure of believing all texts have singular meanings that can be assessed in multiple-choice formats—a dymanic Ferguson unmasks: “The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from.”

Simultaneously, of course, keeping students and teachers laser-focused on text only detracts them from the richer context of Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader implications of racism and classism informed by and informing King’s radical agenda.

Simply stated, close reading is a political agenda embedded in the discourse of objectivity that whitewashes King and denies voice and agency to King, teachers, and students.

Concurrently, Hattie’s catch phrase, “visible learning,” serves the same political agenda: Nothing matters unless we can observe and quantify it (of course, conveniently omitting that this act itself determines what is allowed to be seen—not the impact of poverty or the consequences of inequity, of course).

Hattie’s garbled research and data [1] match the recent efforts in education reform to isolate student learning as the value added (VAM) by individual teachers, yet another off-spring of the cult of efficiency manifested in high-stakes standardized testing.

Just as many have debunked the soundness of Hattie’s data and statistics, the VAM experiment has almost entirely failed to produce the outcomes it promised (see the school choice movement, the charter school movement, the standards movement, etc.).

Coleman and Hattie work to control what counts and what matters—the ultimate in politics—and thus are welcomed resources for those benefitting from inequity and wishing to keep everyone’s gaze on anything except that inequity.

The misogyny and racism among comic book fanboys allows the sort of political ignorance reflected in The Onion‘s satire.  If we remain “within the four corners of the text” of Marvel’s Captain America, for example, we are ignoring that, as I have examined, “Captain America has always been a fascist. … But … Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.”

The politics of education policy seeks to point the accusatory finger at other people’s politics, and that politics of policy is served by the technocrats, such as Coleman and Hattie, who feed and are fed by the lie of objectivity, the lie of no politics.

[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:

Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.


Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.

For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin