Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

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

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

Franz Kafka 1923 (public domain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. In The Trial, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of judicial forms. The apparent acquittal of the disciplinary societies (between two incarcerations); and the limitless postponements of the societies of control (in continuous variation) are two very different modes of juridicial life, and if our law is hesitant, itself in crisis, it’s because we are leaving one in order to enter the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those assumptions are mostly hokum.

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

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

It is much ado about nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

The Metamorphosis at 100, Alexander Billet

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The Problem with Balanced Literacy

My summer graduate course, Foundations and Current Trends in Literacy Research and Practice, never fails at being an invigorating course for me and my students because it combines foundational topics in literacy with a never-ending series of current debates and controversies surrounding those enduring elements of teaching and learning literacy.

For several years recently, my home state of South Carolina has provided ample content because of the current reading legislation, Read to Succeed, heavily drawn from Florida’s reading policy and commitment to grade retention as a punitive key element in teaching reading.

This summer, however, even with Read to Succeed firmly entrenched and resulting in grade retention for students, a new wave of controversy has invigorated this course’s topics—the media focus on the “science of reading” driven by advocates for students with dyslexia and the (tired) resurgence of calls for systematic phonics for all students.

The scapegoats in this “science of reading” frenzy are teacher education and balanced literacy (the younger cousin of the similarly maligned whole language).

At the end of class preceding the next day’s focus on balanced literacy, a graduate student asked for a quick definition because since she was new to education and had recently experienced many interviews that asked her to define balanced literacy, she felt quite disoriented and uninformed about what it means.

I pulled up my standard paragraph from Dixie Lee Spiegel and immediately heard several other students note this isn’t how they have had the term defined in their schools.

As I read the daily reflections on the readings for balanced literacy, this response, I think, is an important way to address the problem with balanced literacy (edited for some minor formatting):

My school places a huge emphasis on balanced literacy. However, it is presented more in terms of how much time and in what context various components of literacy should be implemented in class daily (we even have it in a pie chart) [emphasis added]. We used to have a great deal of autonomy in the curriculum we chose in reading and writing, but our district recently adopted Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. Although Calkins desires for teachers to use her units as a framework, it has become a way to make sure all teachers are doing the same thing [emphasis added]. In practice we have a balanced literacy program in terms of we give students choice (although in the early grades very restricted choices), allow time for free reading, a lot of experience with literacy, small, guided reading group instruction, and explicit phonics instruction; we are doing all of this in a systematic, controlled way. I read the article about effective balanced literacy instruction and felt it did a great job in summarizing the qualities that make a teacher highly effective in the implementation of balanced literacy. But the point is…it takes a highly effective teacher, period.

Having only been consistently teaching for five years, I also understand how incredibly challenging it is to be a masterful teacher. I feel I could have seemed that I was implementing balanced literacy proficiently in a class I had two years ago. Most of my class came from literacy rich environments and could discuss books in meaningful ways. The ones that did struggle, were inspired by their peers to take risks in reading (they made me look good). This past year, I did not have a class as a whole that loved reading. For a lot of them, it was a challenge to get them to listen to stories much less engage in meaningful conversations. The majority of them would say they hated to read. Calkins (and my reading coach) would have me go to a first grade unit of study and implement more basic literacy skills to scaffold, but there was no way I would be able to do this alone. The lessons are very in depth and it would have cost me more time than I had available. Also, those mini-lessons would not have appealed to the 6 or 8 students who were ready to have more comprehensive, richer discussions. Reading and literacy implementation was a struggle all year.

I also realize that it is easier within systems to quantify and package things, but you simply cannot do this with teachers and students [emphasis added]. It is easy to show learning in a quantitative way. Although my students achieved higher reading levels this year, which looks great on an SLO [Student Learning Objectives], as a teacher I know that I missed it with them. I also realize that I can say I am doing balanced literacy, but I know it isn’t truly what balanced literacy is intended to be [emphasis added].

To open the discussion, after reading this an other reflections with similar descriptions, I explained to the class that both whole language and balanced literacy are philosophies of teaching and acquiring literacy; they provide evidence-based broad concepts to guide practice, but neither was originally intended to be programs or templates for how teachers teacher or how students learn.

As the response above demonstrates, however, education in practice is often over-reliant on programs and less diligent about addressing philosophy or theory. In short, the problem with balanced literacy is not that teacher education teaches balanced literacy and not the science of reading (note because balanced literacy as a philosophy of literacy embraces that full and complex science of reading) and not that teachers do not know the science of reading but are teaching balanced literacy, but that almost all schools have adopted programs, many of which claim the label of “balanced literacy” while also breaking the foundational elements of that philosophy (see the last sentence of the response above).

And just as the media, dyslexia advocates, and phonics proponents have endorsed, these reading programs (labeled “balanced literacy” or not) are primarily about addressing standards, preparing students for high-stakes tests, and imposing a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning reading; and therein is the essential flaw.

All teachers and all students doing the same things at the same time and being held accountable for doing the mandated program—this is literacy instruction in the U.S., and this is the grand failure no one in the media or in political leadership is willing to address.

All the bluster around calling out “balanced literacy” is nothing more than distraction because it doesn’t really matter what label we assign to how teachers teach reading or how students learn reading; what matters are the expertise of teachers, the needs of students, and the teaching/learning conditions that support or inhibit (see complying with reading programs) effective teaching and learning.

The real problem with balanced literacy is too few people know what it is and as a result are failing it along with the students and teachers caught in that misguided vortex.

Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

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

 

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.”