Consent, Policing, and School Safety

A recent controversy at an Arizona Starbucks spurred anger across social media:

Starbucks on Sunday apologized after an employee at one of its stores in Tempe, Arizona, asked six police officers to leave or move out of a customer’s line of sight, triggering social media backlash.

The officers had visited the store on July 4 and had paid for the drinks, before one company employee approached them about a customer not feeling safe because of the police presence, the Tempe Officers Association said on Twitter.

Conservative pro-police voices called for a boycott of Starbucks, and eventually, the company issued an apology.

The outrage toward customers in Starbucks finding the presence of police officers intimidating is a uniquely American response, but not one common to all Americans.

Several months ago, I was having a late dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant after I finished teaching an evening course at my university. Just as I was eating chips with salsa and drinking the XX I ordered, in walked four officers with the county K-9 unit.

These men were typically outfitted like militia—several visible weapons and fatigues. They were dressed for war—not to serve and protect.

Image result for greenville county K-9 units

I was deeply uncomfortable when they sat beside me; in fact, I always find armed police officers intimidating because they have guns.

For many years now, U.S. police forces have become more and more militarized, through training and acquiring equipment from the military.

The uncomfortable Starbuck’s customers are, in fact, embodiments of what research shows about heavily armed and antagonistic police forces—especially when compared to London policing, which is grounded in policing by consent from 1829:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

Research on “deterrence models,” “based on the idea that offenders and would be offenders are responsive primarily to the risk of punishment,” where “agents of criminal justice need to send out signals of strength, force, detection and justice” and “legitimacy” models where “authority has the right to exercise power [because] it commands consent (a sense of obligation to obey) that is grounded in legality and moral alignment” support the problems with the former and the value in the latter.

That research concludes: “Policing by consent is based upon the idea that the police gain voluntary approval and cooperation from the public not through aggressive control of the population, but through fostering a close social connection between the police and public.”

And thus, citizens in London have a distinctly different experience with police:

[M]ore than 90 percent of the capital’s police officers carry out their daily duties without a gun. Most rely on other tools to keep their city safe: canisters of mace, handcuffs, batons and occasionally stun-guns.

This is no accident.

The Metropolitan Police, which covers most of London, was founded in 1829 on the principle of “policing by consent” rather than by force.

Giving everyday police officers guns sends the wrong message to communities, so this thinking goes, and can actually cause more problems than it solves.

…In the year up to March 2016, police in England and Wales only fired seven bullets….

These officers fatally shot just five people during that period, according to British charity Inquest, which helps families after police-related deaths.

The contrast with the U.S. is stunning:

It’s a world away from the United States, where cops killed 1,092 people in 2016, according to figures compiled by The Guardian.

Of course it’s easier for police to remain unarmed if civilians do the same. Out of every 100 people in Britain, fewer than four of them owns a firearm, according to GunPolicy.org, a project run by Australia’s University of Sydney. In the U.S. there is more than one gun per person.

And for people living in Arizona, “on average, it happens every five days: An Arizona police officer aims a weapon and shoots at someone.”

That armed police officers enter a coffee shop and cause discomfort is not reason to boycott a lucrative chain but a clear signal about the harm being done to democracy and safety in the US. As Jonathan Mummolo’s research details:

The increasingly visible presence of heavily armed police units in American communities has stoked widespread concern over the militarization of local law enforcement. Advocates claim militarized policing protects officers and deters violent crime, while critics allege these tactics are targeted at racial minorities and erode trust in law enforcement. Using a rare geocoded census of SWAT team deployments from Maryland, I show that militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with large shares of African American residents, even after controlling for local crime rates. Further, using nationwide panel data on local police militarization, I demonstrate that militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime. Finally, using survey experiments—one of which includes a large oversample of African American respondents—I show that seeing militarized police in news reports may diminish police reputation in the mass public. In the case of militarized policing, the results suggest that the often-cited trade-off between public safety and civil liberties is a false choice.

The public and political misguided belief in militarized police units is eerily similar to the public and political calls for turning public schools into prisons through armed guards (and teachers), surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and active shooter drills.

Just as militarized police forces do not deter crime or protect officers, commonly embraced safety features being implemented in schools do not make schools more secure and can often increase unsafe behavior by students.

To protect a democracy and the public schools that in theory feed that democracy, and to foster a society that is both free and safe, the concept of policing by consent is both more effective and better matched to the ideals often claimed for the U.S.

The root problem in the U.S. continues to be guns and seemingly unbridled tendencies toward authoritarianism.

The Starbucks customers had rational reactions not only to the presence of the police officers but to the reality those officers represent—that in the U.S. militarized police forces do not make us safer but often create violence and even death.

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Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


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College campuses are far from radical

Sacrificing Women: “I came to see the damage that was done”

I came to see the damage that was done…

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

Some of the most offensive elements of the Brett Kavanaugh dissembling are that his lived experiences beneath his lies are about a much wider and more insidious reality. The partisan sideshow must not be allowed to distract us from that reality—that we are a country still complicit in sacrificing women.

Toxic masculinity and rape culture are inexcusable subsets of a larger toxic privilege that spawned Kavanaugh and legions just like him. And, yes, frat culture in his past and today are microcosms of the misogynistic worlds in which mostly white men circulate while clutching the vast majority of wealth and power in the US.

But the Kavanaugh debacle is a story about toxic privilege and our willingness to sacrifice girls and women at the alter of any one powerful white man.

Toxic masculinity, rape culture, and toxic privilege depend as well on complicit women who have been drawn into a dark fantasy of being embraced and rewarded by these men—as reflected in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

Toxic privilege has also driven a pop culture designed to idealize and sanitize rape culture:

Sixteen Candles isn’t a college sex romp like Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House. It’s a high school love story. It’s been celebrated for 34 years for its sweet, romantic heart. Yet it is entirely willing to feature a lengthy, supposedly hilarious subplot in which a drunk and unconscious girl is passed from one boy to another and then raped.

So Caroline gets drunk at a party and passes out in her boyfriend’s room, where presumably she believes she will be safe….

The next time we see Caroline, she’s unconscious again, and the Geek is having his friends photograph him next to her unresponsive body. “Ted, you’re a legend,” they gush.

The next morning, a newly sober Caroline and Geek conclude that they had sex the night before. The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. “You know, I have this weird feeling I did,” Caroline says.

As this analysis unpacks, Kavanaugh lived through the same era as this film, and many popular films much worse. Alcohol and toxic masculinity in high school and especially college continue to function the same ways, ways that sacrifice women.

In the very real and ugly world, women are victims of crass political and ideological commitments to guns and lies about who exactly women should fear; it isn’t foreigners or strangers, but guns and men they know:

While this study does not focus solely on domestic violence homicide or guns, it provides a stark reminder that domestic violence and guns make a deadly combination. According to reports submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), firearms are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes. Instead, they are all too often used to inflict harm on the very people they were intended to protect.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, in 2016 there were only 327 justifiable homicides committed by private citizens. Of these, only 45 involved women killing men. Of those, only 29 involved firearms, with 22 of the 29 involving handguns. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common scenarios of lethal gun use in America in 2016, the most recent final data available, are suicide (22,938), homicide (14,415), or fatal unintentional injury (495). (When Men Murder Women)

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And the very worst of these realities are prominent across the Bible Belt:

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Emily Peck has reported a telling moment in the Kavanaugh saga: “‘Sen. McConnell, do you always turn your back on women like this?’ Khanna asked as the senator faced other questions from activists while he rode the escalator.”

Yes, the answer is yes, but also, McConnell is but one example of a much larger reality, an entire country turning its back, allowing women to be sacrificed.

A New School Year But the Same Concerns about Safety

Over the summer, a post on social media complained about President Trump not receiving credit for the sudden pause in school shootings. Of course, as one response noted, school violence tends to be absent when schools are no longer in session.

This virtual exchange exposes the dangers of both partisan sniping and uninformed public debates.

As K-12 schools and colleges begin new academic years, we are all once again concerned about the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

However, actual policies and practices that would better insure that safety face many hurdles. One problem with implementing effective strategies for safer schools is a lack of credible data.

Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR: “Our reporting highlights just how difficult it can be to track school-related shootings and how researchers, educators and policymakers are hindered by a lack of data on gun violence.”

This confusion over how often school shootings occur is made even more complicated since high-profile mass shootings at schools tend to create a false and distorted picture of schools. Despite what political, media, and public debates suggest, numerous studies reveal that students are safer in schools than in their communities.

And here is where we must face a powerful but often ignored fact about how to make our schools safer: School safety initiatives must begin by making our communities and wider society safer, including addressing access to and the sheer amount of guns in the U.S.

School safety measures have proven time and again not to be effective. More troubling, some safety measures have been shown to create less safe environments in our schools.

Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and resource officers are all widely supported by politicians and the public, yet they do not create safer schools. And as a study released by the National Association of School Psychologists reveals,

There is no clear research evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence (Addington, 2009; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010; Casella, 2006; Garcia, 2003). In fact, research has shown that their presence negatively impacts students’ perceptions of safety and even increases fear among some students (Bachman, Randolph, & Brown, 2011; Schreck & Miller, 2003). In addition, studies suggest that restrictive school security measures have the potential to harm school learning environments (Beger, 2003; Phaneuf, 2009).

After intense media coverage of shootings at schools in the 2017-2018 school year, many have been compelled to call for more people being armed, even arguing for increased armed officer presence in schools and arming teachers.

Yet, the evidence is overwhelming, as Melinda Wenner Moyer reports, “guns are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide”—but not with greater safety.

If we can set aside partisan agendas and popular support for policies that lack credibility, we must confront that security cameras were present at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, that arm resource officers were present at Columbine and Parkland, and that turning schools into fortresses surrounded by barbed wire and gated with metal detectors is more likely to criminalize our students than protect them.

Ultimately, however, our choice is not between fatalism—throwing up our hands and doing nothing—and grasping at misleading and even harmful policies that give the appearance of making schools safer.

First, the U.S. is well overdue on a reckoning with our gun-lust. We have too many guns in the U.S., and we allow far too much access to those guns. Internationally, we are an obscene outlier in gun violence and access.

If school and community safety is a real concern in our country, we will find the political and public will to change our laws and our behavior. Without that will, our schools will remain ground zero for tragedies that could be avoided.

Next, of course, school policies and practices can have positive consequences for safety.

After Columbine, in fact, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education cautioned against safety structures (officers, metal detectors, cameras, etc.) and stressed:

Specifically, Initiative findings suggest that [school] officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:

  • developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,
  • employing the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.

In other words, school safety is about paying close attention to our students, their needs and their struggles. School safety is a human issue, not something that can be barricaded or watched over closed circuit.

Ill-informed “gotcha” social media exchanges reveal the essential problems with our political and public responses to school violence: We are too often driven by our hearts and our guts while refusing to see and listen to the often hard answers for genuinely dangerous realities.

Be Informed, Not Ideological

The Onion has created a dark humor Groundhog Day response to school and mass shootings in the U.S.: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

Public discourse and social media discussions suffer from something as predictable after school shootings as well—a fruitless clash of ideological claims, often bereft of evidence or historical context.

As an educator and a scholar, I feel compelled to advocate for safety in our society and our schools; therefore, I routinely address the research base on gun violence and school safety through my Twitter feed, on Facebook, and in my blogging.

Here’s a pattern I witness each time.

I post something about gun violence and school shootings, and someone comments with a claim that the school shootings are the result of a decline in morals, occasionally tossing in a reference to taking God and prayer out of schools (this last part is, by the way, entirely false as forced prayer has been deemed unconstitutional in public schools, but everyone in those schools are free to pray without interference).

This popped up after the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, so I simply responded by asking what evidence exists that the U.S. was ever a moral/ethical country and thus how do we prove a decline.

The person openly stated that they had no proof, and just believed it to be true—conceding that I had the right to believe whatever I wanted.

Herein is the problem: Most people believe and argue as ideologues, and thus, assume everyone else is arguing as an ideologue also—reducing public and social media debate to little more than a shouting match absence evidence.

The worst extremes of being ideological, for example, are racism and sexism. Racism is the idea that some races are superior to others, and racists, then, impose that idea onto the world instead of drawing conclusions about race from evidence. Sexism functions the same regarding sex/gender.

The ideologue, then, can often be discredited by evidence—except that those functioning by ideology alone refuse to move from being ideological to being informed by that evidence.

Science, often misunderstood, is a discipline designed to build better understanding through a variety of ways of thinking, reasoning:

“In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science, there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

We start with some idea—I think this is true about the world, or human behavior—and then we put that idea to a test. The outcome of that testing creates some foundation for anticipating how the world will work, how humans will behave.

However, those ideas grounded in evidence are then always subject to the consequences of further evidence—if the evidence reinforces the idea, it survives; if the evidence contradicts the idea, it must change.

Ideologues, resistant to evidence, become victims to logical fallacies—flawed thinking, for example:

A leading candidate would be “attribution error.” Attribution error leads us to resist attempts to explain the bad behavior of people in the enemy tribe by reference to “situational” factors—poverty, enemy occupation, humiliation, peer group pressure, whatever. We’d rather think our enemies and rivals do bad things because that’s the kind of people they are: bad….

This is attribution error working as designed. It sustains your conviction that, though your team may do bad things, it’s only the other team that’s actually bad. Your badness is “situational,” theirs is “dispositional.”…

Another cognitive bias—probably the most famous—is confirmation bias, the tendency to embrace, perhaps uncritically, evidence that supports your side of an argument and to either not notice, reject, or forget evidence that undermines it.

To refuse continually interrogating our ideas about the world against the evidence is to commit to faulty thinking, attribution error and confirmation bias, for a just a couple of the most powerful ways people become mired in false ideology and resistant to credible ideas.

Being ideological instead of informed has dire consequences. Ideological thinking created a healthcare crisis because patients believed antibiotics cure every sort of illness, and then the medical field made a market error by allowing patient demand to drive bad medical practice.

Antibiotic-resistant disease is the child of ideological over informed behavior.

The gun debate and the pursuit of safety also suffer from ideological flaws.

For example, many people argue for gun ownership, and against gun regulation, because they believe guns in the home protect their family and property.

Two aspects of this argument are important.

First, this argument conflates safety with gun ownership without investigating whether or not this is a fair association.

The personal and family safety—self-defense—argument is both rational and irrational. To desire safety is entirely rational; to cling to guns in that pursuit, once you are informed and not ideological, becomes irrational.

Thus, second, gun ownership for safety has many outcomes more common that self-defense—domestic violence, suicide, and accidental shootings (see research listed here).

At the root of many people being ideological and not informed is our basic human nature; we are causal machines as a pursuit of survival.

Humans are constantly jumping from correlation to causation because we are predisposed to making those inferences at the unconscious level, split-second decisions once necessary to survive.

Consider, again, our rush to make medical claims not based in evidence: People think being cold causes colds; however, colds are the result of the presence of viruses. (It seems worth noting we can experience cold with our senses and viruses are not recognizable to the bare senses.)

Extreme cold can lead to hypothermia, and can reduce our resistance to bacteria and viruses. But cold weather doesn’t cause colds.

To be ideological (and wrong) is easier because there is some seemingly concrete way to jumble correlation with causation; the be informed requires a willingness to step back from what we believe.

As great failures of ideology, then, we demand antibiotics and cling to guns because we have made flawed associations with both in pursuit of perfectly good outcomes—health and safety.

To be informed, and not ideological, means that we must be willing to identify what it is we are trying to understand. And then we must be willing not only to seek out evidence but also to recognize that evidence even as it goes against our initial idea—that which we have always believed.

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.