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.

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The Rational and Irrational of Protection and Guns

Few issues expose the ineffectiveness of evidence and research on people’s beliefs and fears than the gun debate.

Social media prove to be terrible avenues for such exchanges as well, but one recurring argument about gun control is that some gun advocates who fear gun control are driven by a mostly rational urge to protect themselves, their families, and their possessions.

As a subset of the larger debate about the possibility of using gun control to curb mass and school shootings as well as all types of gun violence—all of which are far more common in the U.S. than other democracies across Europe and Scandinavia—arguments for in-home gun ownership for protection often fail the evidence test. In fact, those who cling to guns and oppose gun control because of concerns about protection tend to offer “what if” arguments and depend on anecdote.

This exposes a fundamental lack of awareness among many, if not most, people that significant bodies of research on guns, gun control, and gun violence have been conducted, and while we do not know everything definitively, we know quite a lot—and we do not have to speculate, and we do not need to depend on fear or irrational scenarios.

Evidence, in fact, suggests that even if gun ownership can contribute to protection and self-defense, the negative consequences of guns in the home far outweigh that possibility—suicides, accidental shootings, and domestic violence.

Research also shows that other strategies often prove better for protection and safety than returning or using gun fire.

But, since social media are a hot mess for this reason, no one should accept the claims above simply because I make them here in this post. Therefore, here is what I can find accessible online:

Statistics on the Dangers of Gun Use for Self-Defense (Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence)

Though guns may be successfully used in self-defense even when they are not fired, the evidence shows that their presence in the home makes a person more vulnerable, not less.  Instead of keeping owners safer from harm, objective studies confirm that firearms in the home place owners and their families at greater risk.  Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that living in a home where guns are kept increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by between 40 and 170%.2  Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology similarly found that “persons with guns in the home were at greater risk of dying from a homicide in the home than those without guns in the home.”  This study determined that the presence of guns in the home increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by 90%.3

Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study | American Journal of Epidemiology

Abstract

Data from a US mortality follow-back survey were analyzed to determine whether having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a violent death in the home and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns in the home. Those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 1.9, 95% confidence interval: 1.1, 3.4). They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide, but risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death. The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 10.4, 95% confidence interval: 5.8, 18.9). Persons with guns in the home were also more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from one committed by using a different method (adjusted odds ratio = 31.1, 95% confidence interval: 19.5, 49.6). Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home

Abstract
OBJECTIVE:
Determine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide.

METHODS:
We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas.

RESULTS:
During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

CONCLUSIONS:
Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Gun owners say they buy for protection, but harm is more likely

Meanwhile, there are at least four distinct risks from having a gun in the home:

  • Legal liability, as illustrated by the Springport case. Law enforcement officials warn using a gun in self defense can put a gun owner in legal jeopardy if they injure or kill someone and a prosecutor decides the shooting doesn’t fit Michigan’s fairly narrow allowable uses of deadly force.
  • Risk of an accidental shooting. In 2016, Michigan had at least 73 accidental shootings that resulted in death or injury, including 15 events that involved children under age 12, according to Gun Violence Archive, a website that tracks self-defense shootings from a variety of sources.
  • Risk of a gun being used against a family member, friend or acquaintance during an argument. Four out of five gun homicide victims in Michigan are killed by someone they know, based on an MLive analysis of cases where the relationship between shooter and victim was reported.
  • Increased risk of suicide, since guns provide a particularly convenient and lethal means of self-harm. A majority of Michigan gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, and counties with high rates of gun suicides also have higher rates of suicides overall.

Firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths

Abstract
BACKGROUND:
Between 1979 and 1997, almost 30,000 Americans died from unintentional firearm injuries, half of whom were under 25 years of age and 4,600 of whom were less than 15 years old.

PURPOSE:
To explore the association between state firearm levels and rates of unintentional firearm deaths by age group, accounting for several potential confounders.

METHODS:
The study used a proxy for firearm availability and pooled cross-sectional time-series data on unintentional firearm deaths for the 50 United States from 1979 to 1997. Negative binomial models were used to estimate the association between firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths.

RESULTS:
A statistically significant and robust association exists between gun availability and unintentional firearm deaths for the US as a whole and within each age group. Multivariate analysis found that, compared to states with the lowest gun levels, states with the highest gun levels had, on average, 9 times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths. These results hold among men and women, for Whites and African Americans.

CONCLUSION:
Of the almost 30,000 people who died in unintentional firearm deaths over the 19-year study period, a disproportionately high number died in states where guns are more prevalent. The results suggest that the increased risk of unintentional violent death among all age groups is not entirely explained by a state’s level of poverty, urbanization, or regional location.

Myth vs. Fact: Debunking the Gun Lobby’s Favorite Talking Points – Center for American Progress

Myth: Owning a gun makes you safer

Fact: Owning a gun puts you at heightened risk for gun violence

The NRA often argues that the United States is a dangerous place and that owning and carrying a gun is the only way to protect both oneself and one’s family. While gun ownership is certainly one option for home defense, a growing body of data and research shows that owning a gun also increases the risk of a gun-related tragedy occurring in the home.

  • Numerous studies have found that gun ownership increases the risk of both gun-related homicides and suicides.1
  • Guns in the home are particularly dangerous for victims of domestic violence. The presence of a gun in a home with a history of domestic violence increases the risk that a woman will be killed by 500 percent.2
  • Guns intended for self-defense are commonly involved in fatal accidents. Studies have shown that across states, higher levels of gun ownership are linked to higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths.3

Guns are used far more often in criminal homicides than in justifiable acts of self-defense. In 2014, for every self-defense gun homicide in the United States, guns were used in 34 criminal homicides.4

Seeking safety is a rational urge for anyone, but associating guns and gun ownership with greater safety is irrational, guaranteeing more violence and death in fact.

GUEST POST: In Defense of Civic Engagement in Schools

Brian Charest, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Redlands
School of Education
Department of Teaching and Learning

Last week, we saw firsthand the incredible democratic potential and power of civic engagement. Hundreds of thousands of students across the country, in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, from New York to Parkland, and many small towns and cities in between, peacefully walked out of their schools and universities to protest gun violence in the US.

We heard the impassioned voices of students speaking out and urging legislators not only to look carefully at the research that supports gun safety regulations, but also to act on this research by passing sensible public safety legislation that protects our young people. These students (who some are calling activists), with their earnest, inspired, and eloquent speeches, are not only an amazing antidote to the cynicism infecting so much of our national politics (they even convinced our president to reverse his positions on gun safety—if only temporarily), they are also an example to us all of what civic engagement can look like when we make it a priority in schools.

Yet, there are still some who have openly criticized and tried to intimidate these students. Make no mistake, the people making these threats to these students are attempting to undermine our democracy. We should all be vigilant when we see these types of smear campaigns aimed at silencing or intimidating our fellow citizens. When people are silenced, debate ends and democracy ceases to function. We have an ethical obligation, as educators, to engage in debate with our students and to ask questions with them about how to change the world for the better.

Let’s remember this: it was a group of high school students in Parkland who stood up and spoke out against some of the most powerful and well-funded special interests in our country and started a national movement. We might begin by asking why would such powerful groups need to threaten and intimidate a group of young adults exercising their rights to participate? The answer, of course, is that these students are engaging in the public sphere and making powerful arguments to change our society for the better. What’s more, because of who they are and where they come from, they’re being heard. Why these students have the power and privilege to be heard is also worth examining. The point here, of course, is that all of these questions are worth asking and asking them now is part of what it means to be civically engaged. And, the lesson here is that people can often out organize the big money and special interests. Who wouldn’t want students to learn this lesson?

If we believe that our democracy requires citizen participation, then all of us no matter what side of the debate we find ourselves, should be supporting school walkouts, rather than discouraging them. Why? Because civic engagement is necessary for our democracy to function. This is also an opportunity to for educators to redefine what civic engagement means in schools.

So, while I understand the urge to call these students activists, doing so undermines the core responsibilities that fall to all ordinary citizens. In other words, citizenship includes both rights and responsibilities. Each of us is both responsible for participating and also exercising our rights in our democracy. When we call citizen participation activism, though, we turn it into something that’s viewed as outside the norm, when, in fact, citizen participation is a requirement for a healthy democracy.

Too often, civic participation in our schools and communities is reduced to following the laws, voting, contributing to a political campaign, or volunteering. All of these forms of civic participation are important, no doubt, but citizenship doesn’t end there. Our country has a long history of civic participation and civil disobedience. This is something that we should teach our students about civic engagement. A healthy democracy requires that all of us get involved in public debates, participate in marches, speak out, protest, go on strike, or invent some new way to engage in the public sphere when necessary and appropriate.

One of the stated purposes of the current walkouts is to galvanize public support as a way to pressure lawmakers to enact effective gun safety legislation so that students will never again have to hide in fear or run for their lives from school. These students have had enough, and they are sending a clear message: listen to us, or we will vote you out of office.

What these students have discovered is that a majority of Americans support them and their stated goal of more and better gun safety legislation. But, that’s not all that these students have learned. They’ve also realized that money and special interests have undermined our democracy and that it’s up to ordinary citizens to fight back. Our elected officials are no longer supporting or enacting legislation that’s supported by a majority of Americans. What better reason than this could there be for a national call for civic participation?

Two more nationwide protests are scheduled to take place on March 24 and on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As educators (including teachers, university faculty, researchers, and administrators), we should be publicly supporting, participating in, and helping to organize with our students, teachers, and principals in our schools and universities, who wish to participate in the upcoming protest against gun violence.

Our schools, for better or for worse, reflect our priorities as a society and should be spaces where students and teachers discuss what those priorities should be. In other words, even if we disagree about what to do about our culture of violence in the US, we should still support the rights of all citizens to participate in peaceful protests. There are many ways to respectfully include those who choose not to march or walkout. We can begin by engaging with them in dialogue about civic participation as well as debates about the root causes of gun violence and what to do about it.

In fact, those of us who work in schools and universities need to carve out time in our classes to research and discuss the root causes that have created a culture of violence in the US. Doing so would allow students to participate in an informed discussion about how to address the root causes of gun violence in our society. Such a conversation would examine the larger issues of public safety, the culture of violence in the US that equates masculinity with guns, bullying in schools and on campuses, violence against women in our society, the increase in militarism in schools that serve our most vulnerable youth (e.g, ROTC programs, military-run schools, junior police academies, etc.), state sanctioned violence through policing, and, perhaps, most importantly, the systemic racism that blinds us to the effects of gun violence in poor communities of color.

These national protests are the first step toward a public conversation about these root causes—a step that can help lead to the enactment of a public safety plan to reduce gun violence in the US. Such a plan would emerge from what we currently know about gun safety and gun violence prevention. Such a plan would also align with the views of a majority of Americans who believe in things like background checks for all gun buyers (93%), a ban on the sale of guns to anyone convicted of a violent crime (88%), and for waiting periods for all gun purchases (72%).

I urge all educators and advocates to take this moment to not only voice your support for civic engagement (no matter which side of the debate you’re on), but also take concrete steps to engage in the public gun safety debate. There are many ways to get involved, and we shouldn’t let this moment pass in silence.

This is an important moment for our nation, and students and teachers have an opportunity to not only debate the issue of public safety, but also get involved in a process of democratic policy making. Doing so would not only encourage teachers to teach about the power of civic engagement, but also provide an opportunity for students to see firsthand the importance of civic action in a democracy.

We need look no further than our own national history to know the power and promise of civic engagement. It has always been through a combination of careful study and vigorous debate combined with direct civic action that citizens have worked to shape their world for the better. If we don’t teach our students how to be citizens now, when will they learn to do it?

Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.


[1] An early poem of mine:

billboard

(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.

The Death of Teaching and Learning in America

“We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Kasky said.

Parkland Students: ‘We’re The Mass Shooting Generation’

As a teacher educator, I am fortunate to maintain professional and personal relationships with wonderful early-career educators. But here are a couple stories from one young teacher I’d rather not tell.

First, this early-career teacher has distinguished herself already; in many ways, she represents the very best of who we all want to be teaching students. But at a recent meeting about pay and benefits next year, she was informed that the slight raise she was anticipating would be negated by new retirement deductions.

Her response: “I love to teach, but I know a day is coming when the negatives outweigh the benefits, and I just won’t be able to do this any more.” She added that this moment seemed to be coming sooner rather than later, that she wasn’t going to be a martyr.

As an English teacher, she also has been struggling with her canon: the steady drip, drip, drip of male authors exposed for sexual harassment and abuse—Garrison Keillor, J.D. Salinger, Sherman Alexie.

As she has confronted these issues, and stopped assigning those writers, she has witnessed students come against a very troubling reality; one student noted in class, “Everybody we read has committed sexual harassment.”

These two moments represent the professional weight of being a teacher—issues about pay and benefits as well as pedagogy.

Now, let’s mix in something that may prove even more daunting.

At the sparsely attended walk out on my campus, one student showed up with a sign: “I am scared to be an Ed Major.”

IMG_9701

The very real specter of schooling as a place in which students and teachers must be vigilant about safety, about the possibility of being shot; the very real specter of calls for turning schools into fortresses, with teachers armed like prison guards.

As David Edwards reports, students increasingly see attending school not as a place of learning, but a place to survive:

“It’s really scary,” the organizer added. “This is a turning point. Things really have to change. We won’t tolerate it. We won’t tolerate being scared to come into school. We won’t tolerate having to stay out of school because we’re scared. It has to change. We can’t be hunted.”

[MSNBC’s Ron] Allen observed that “hunted” was a “powerful word” to use in this context.

“I think that it’s become obvious that we’re the victims,” the girl insisted. “That we are the ones that are going to die if this continues. So I think that we have to fight to at least say that we don’t want to die.”

For decades now, many of us in education who believe in the possibility of universal public education have feared the death of teaching and learning, but we have imagined that coming from policy, free market and accountability approaches to so-called reform.

But something more sinister is happening: Schools have always labored under the weight of the communities they serve, and teaching and learning is now dying a slow and horrible death because of America’s gun culture combined with those bureaucratic monsters many of us were mostly pointing to.

In America, our students and teachers have become martyrs for our misguided politics and ideology—from abdicating teaching and learning to the standards and testing industry, to literally sacrificing lives in the name of gun lust.

Some of us have feared the death of public schools, the death of teaching and learning. Our outcry for decades now may have seemed like hyperbole—or to some, self-interested whining.

But now we are watching both the literal and figurative death of teaching and learning, and too many think the best recourse is doubling down on all the ways this death has come about.

As more and more teachers and students declare that they will not be martyrs, what role will the rest of us take—in their defense or to their demise?

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.