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?

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

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.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

My adolescence was profoundly shaped by hours alone in my room listening to comedy albums, memorizing them—George Carlin and Richard Prior. My aunts and uncle also introduced me to the comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose Everything You Know Is Wrong may serve as the ideal message for educators.

Recently, Jessica McCrory Calarco reported in Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test:

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

And from Science DailyStudy finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective:

A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that “growth mindset interventions,” or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort — and therefore improve grades and test scores — don’t work for students in most circumstances.

Also consider Will Thalheimer’s People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible—learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale’s Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Yet another example is the zombie that will not die, the “word gap”—debunked again in Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds, by Douglas E. Sperry, Linda L. Sperry, and Peggy J. Miller:

Abstract

Amid growing controversy about the oft‐cited “30‐million‐word gap,” this investigation uses language data from five American communities across the socioeconomic spectrum to test, for the first time, Hart and Risley’s (1995) claim that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their middle‐class counterparts during the early years of life. The five studies combined ethnographic fieldwork with longitudinal home observations of 42 children (18–48 months) interacting with family members in everyday life contexts. Results do not support Hart and Risley’s claim, reveal substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum, and suggest that definitions of verbal environments that exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.

But let’s not forget higher education: Arthur G. Jago asks Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?, discovering:

Frustrated, I ended my search for the bibliographic equivalent of “patient zero.” The original source of the fantastical claim that the average academic article has “about 10 readers” may never be known for sure.

So what’s going on as educators and scholars are confronting that everything you know is wrong? I think have some ideas, outlined below:

  • Teachers, notably K-12 educators, are practical to a fault. Teachers want what works in the day-to-day tasks of teaching students (a more than reasonable expectation) but often feel educational philosophy and theory are a waste of their very limited time (again, this time-crunch is a rational response to unreasonable working conditions for most K-12 teachers). The problem with a what works mentality absent a philosophical and theoretical lens is that the wrong basis for determining “works” often guides our practices. As a brief example, many classroom strategies can seem to “work” when students are quiet and complete the assignment, but those may be achieving compliance and not the larger (assumed) academic goal—actually working counter to those goals in fact.
  • Too often teaching can become almost entirely focused on implementing a program (think reading programs or International Baccalaureate) or fulfilling an ideology (think grit and growth mindset) at the exclusion of the instructional goals those programs or ideologies are supposed to achieve. This happens, I think, in part because of the concern for practicality noted above as that is impacted by the historical focus in education on efficiency—what is the easiest and most manageable ways to make this think called teaching and learning happen?
  • Programs and ideologies, however, are often flawed from the beginning because the research they are grounded in is distorted and oversimplified by publishers and advocates. Compounding these oversimplifications and distortions are the media, also complicit in framing complex research in ways that mislead the public and educators. Too often as well, the misconceptions are compelling and robust because they match social norms (stereotypes, biases, cultural myths) more so than reflecting the nuances and limitations of the research. As I have detailed, for example, academic and economic success and failure are far less about any person having or not grit or a growth mindset and more about systemic privilege and disadvantage.
  • Classrooms, teachers, and students are more likely to reflect all aspects of communities and society than to work as change agents for any person or community/society. Teaching and learning, then, become about normalizing, and thus, regardless of what research shows (especially when much of that research is counter to norms), it becomes a tool for the normalizing. One study on the “word gap” by Hart and Risley has become an unexamined fact, not because it is quality research (it isn’t) but because it reinforces cultural myths about social class, deficit ideologies that praise the wealthy and demonize the poor.
  • Teaching and learning are incredibly complex and the consequences of teaching—learning—are rarely easily linked to a single cause (a teacher, a class, a program or ideology) and may not manifest themselves until years later.
  • Too many researchers, consultants, administrators, and teachers become personally, professionally, and financially invested in programs and ideologies—at the expense of everything else, notably students.
  • From K-12 to higher education, teaching and learning are mostly corporatized; in that environment, research, nuance, and uncertainly have no real chance. K-12 schools and universities/colleges are incentivized for many outcomes other than teaching and learning.
  • Educators, the public, and the media embrace contradictory ideas about “scientific” and “research”—simultaneously idealizing and trivializing.

In the big picture, I think the problem of research and evidence as that becomes teaching practices can be better understood through the lens of what is wrong with Teach For America—an organization that very likely has good intentions and invites as well as promotes missionary zeal.

Good intentions are never enough, and missionary zeal is guaranteed to distort everything it touches.

It may well be true that everything you know is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it must stay that way. Good intentions and missionary zeal must be replaced by greater philosophical awareness and the sort of skepticism a critical lens provides.

This is not about fatalism—giving up on research—but about finding a better way forward, one that rejects programs and blanket ideologies and keeps our focus on students and learning along with the promises of formal schooling as a path to equity and justice, not test scores and compliant students.

More on Rejecting Growth Mindset, Grit

When I posted a recent study on growth mindset—Study finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective—on my blog Debunked!, growth mindset advocates quickly bristled at the blog title, notably this Tweet:

Several patterns in the subsequent Twitter discussion are worth addressing in a format more detailed than Tweets.

First, I have been a consistent critic of both growth mindset and grit best captured in the following posts:

I immediately shared these posts as part of the discussion—often guided by Wormeli’s thoughtful and welcomed concerns about my stances.

Next, however, many advocates (mostly for growth mindset) offered typical rebuttals, including (1) arguments that both growth mindset and grit in practice are often counter to the intent of Carol Dweck  (growth mindset) and Angela Duckworth (grit), noting that both have raised concerns about those misuses and misconceptions, (2) chastising me for “conflating” growth mindset and grit, and (3) requesting practical alternatives to growth mindset and grit practices.

To the first point, I want to be clear that I am strongly aware of the gender problems inherent in me, a white male academic, challenging Dweck and Duckworth, including critiques that can be and have been viewed as attacking them personally.

I do think it is fair to address the character of those scholars advocating character education for children (see this on Duckworth, for example), but I also have taken care to monitor gender biases inherent in how we police women scholars versus men scholars.

But, while I am aware that both Dweck and Duckworth have raised concerns about the misuses of growth mindset and grit, I contend that both scholars have reaped a great deal of financial and professional capital from that misuse, primarily, and haven’t refused those profits. I find their cautions hollow, then.

I reject the second point—that I conflate growth mindset and grit—and recognize that growth mindset advocates often seek ways to distance themselves from the grit movement and that research has begun to challenge both growth mindset and grit research by Dweck and Duckworth, although far more challenging claims have been made against Duckworth’s research.

In short, I absolutely recognize that growth mindset and grit are not the same, and may not even be on the same level of validity and credibility as research.

However, while I do not conflate the two, I do highlight in my critiques that both are grounded in deficit ideologies: Both growth mindset and grit, I contend, mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms—that they lack growth mindset/grit.

Yes, growth mindset and grit are unique approaches, but they share the failure of being complicit in deficit practices. And while the science of growth mindset may be more solid than the science of grit, both are prone to the problem of scientific racism—the failure to unpack “high-quality research” for biases.

Now, to the final point, I would recommend Paul Gorski’s work on equity practices, specifically this second edition which directly confronts both growth mindset and grit: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. Here, also, are some starting points with Gorski’s work:

Ultimately, then, I do reject growth mindset and grit, both as programs that are misused and thus harmful to the students who need formal education the most. I also see little room to justify the research behind either, or to excuse Dweck or Duckworth even when they raise cautions about the misuses.

My concerns are driven by an equity lens that recognizes and confronts the problems masked by narrow views of research and science as well as the myopia inherent in accountability that demands in-school-only approaches to teaching, testing, and reform that tend to be driven by bootstrap ideologies.

Teaching and learning as well as success and failure are incredibly complex. Often in education, our rush to find the key to success and failure in order to improve teaching and learning is ruined by a missionary zeal corrupted by biases—both of which must be confronted and resisted.

Growth mindset and grit fail as overzealous programs, and students are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character.

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.

The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America

Writing about the class of 2017’s performance on the newly redesigned SAT, Catherine Gewertz notes, “The number of students taking the SAT has hit an all-time high,” and adds cautiously:

What appear to be big scoring increases should be understood not as sudden jumps in achievement, but as reflections of the differences in the test and the score scale, psychometricians said.

More test takers and higher scores, albeit misleading ones, are the opening discussion about one of the most enduring fixtures of U.S. education—standardized testing as gatekeeping for college entrance, scholarships, and scholastic eligibility.

However, buried about in the middle of Gewertz’s article, we discover another enduring reality:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Throughout its long history, the SAT, like all standardized testing, has reflected tremendous gaps along race, social class, and gender lines; notable, for example, is the powerful correlation between SAT scores and takers’ parental income and level of education as well as the fact that males have had higher average scores than females for the math and verbal sections every year of SAT testing (the only glitch in that being the years the SAT included a writing section).

The SAT is but one example of the lingering and powerful legacy of “scientific racism” in the U.S. Tom Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, punctuates his racist outbursts with “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Buchanan represents the ugly and rarely confronted relationship between “scientific” and “objective” with race, social class, and gender bigotry. In short, science has often been and continues to be tainted by bias that serves the dominant white and wealthy patriarchy.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research along with so-called standardized testing tends to avoid being implicated in not only identifying racism, classism, and sexism, but also perpetuating social inequity.

As I noted recently, since Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have produced mainstream scientific studies and published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, their inherently biased work has been nearly universally embraced—among the exact elites who tend to ignore or outright reject the realities of inequity and injustice.

As just one example, Duckworth grounded her work in and continues to cite a Eugenicist, Francis Galton, with little or no consequences.

Racism, classism, and sexism are themselves built on identifying deficits within identifiable populations. Science allows these corrupt ideologies to appear factual, instead of simple bigotry.

“Scientific” and “objective” are convenient Teflon for bias and bigotry; they provide cover for elites who want evidence they have earned their success, despite incredible evidence that success and failure are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of birth—race, social class, gender.

It takes little effort to imagine a contemporary Tom pointing to the 2017 SAT data and arguing, “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Such ham-fisted scientism, however, mutes the deeper message that SAT data is a marker for all sorts of inequity in the U.S. And then when that data have the power to determine college entrance and scholarships, the SAT also perpetuates the exact inequities it measures.

The SAT sits in a long tradition including IQ testing that speaks to a jumbled faith in the U.S. for certain kinds of numbers and so-called science; when the data and the science reinforce our basest beliefs, we embrace, but when data and science go against out sacred gods, we refute (think climate change and evolution).

Science that is skeptical and critical, questioning and interrogating, has much to offer humanity. But science continues to be plagued by human frailties such as bias.

Science, like history, is too often written by the winners, the oppressors. As a result, Foucault details, “[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” [1]

“Scientific racism,” as a subset of science that normalizes bigotry, allows the accusatory white gaze to remain on groups that are proclaimed inherently flawed, deficient, in need of correction. “Scientific racism” distracts us from realizing that the tests and science themselves are the problem.

And thus, we must abandon seeking ever-new tests, such as revising the SAT, and begin the hard work of addressing why the gaps reflected in the tests exist—a “why” that is not nested in any group but our society and its powerful elite.


[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 203.

See this thread: