They Were Born for This Moment: How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of privilege.

Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the impact of teenagers from Parkland, Florida after yet another mass school shooting is a flawed Bob Dole read on the power of education. The most telling moment that this misreading of why America seems to embrace these teenagers comes here:

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Political analysis of Dole’s last failed run for president often includes that Dole’s narrative focused on going back to an idealized and whitewashed past, while Bill Clinton focused on the future.

To suggest a “1950s-style public education” is a major element of the good ol’ days is an incomplete and ultimately offensive view of history.

Public schools reflected and perpetuated in mid-twentieth century all of the very worst aspects of American society, including segregation and corrosive inequity along race, social class, and gender lines.

The disturbing irony of the flawed central thesis of this argument is that the student activists from Stoneman Douglas High do in fact represent the realities of 1950s-style public education: Privileged children in the U.S. also benefit from privileged schooling—a fact of the 1950s and of the 2010s.

There are, however, two lessons from the activism of these Parkland, Florida teens:

  1. It provides another entry point into debunking that education is the great equalizer, and
  2. it represents in contrast to how America has responded to #BlackLivesMatter activism the lingering racial divide about whose voices, and thus lives, matter.

To the first lesson, consider the following:

And as a powerful visual for understanding that educational attainment does not level racial inequity, consider this (as well as a wealth of research contradicting education as the great equalizer):

Yet, Lithwick maintains:

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.”

The mistake here is that educational opportunities are a marker for the accident of birth most children enjoy or suffer; highlighting the rich schooling experiences of the Parkland, Florida students receive is a veneer for confronting that they mostly are the beneficiaries of privilege, first in their homes and communities, and then in their schools, which reflect and perpetuate their privilege.

To be clear, this is no condemnation of these teen activists, but their access to widespread national recognition is driven mostly by their privilege in many of the same ways that the Bush family and the Trumps have parlayed generational wealth into more (often ill-got) power, regardless of their merit.

This misreading of the reasons why the Parkland, Florida teens are being heard provides cover for the more damning and problematic second lesson, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman confronts:

For some black activists who have long been mobilizing around gun violence, the current wave of public attention and outrage over the issue is welcome. But it also invites the question of why there’s been comparatively little attention and outrage focused on the even more common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.

Prominent black organizers and public figures have also noted the largely positive public response to the student activists from Parkland ― most of whom are not black and who attended school in a largely white, relatively affluent Florida suburb ― compared to the frequent vilification of young black activists protesting gun violence, particularly police shootings.

The Stoneman Douglas High teens are no more credible in their activism than the many black teen activists who have responded to the equally disturbing normal of police shootings that disproportionately kill blacks.

When affluent and a certain kind of articulate young people confront mass gun violence, their privilege sparks responses that are distinct from the responses to a differently racialized and classed protest against gun violence perpetually killing one person at a time.

Kurt Vonnegut, who died of lung cancer, confessed in the preface to a collection of short stories: “The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”

Beyond the macabre humor and stark reality of Vonnegut’s admission, we must see that he is deconstructing the power of normal; once something become normal, it projects the impression that is also right.

In the U.S., the messengers and the messaging are more powerful than the message. And this is the large scale lesson of the Parkland, Florida activism: Privileged voices and lives matter.

Public schools in the U.S. are not game changers, not great equalizers. Further, as the Parkland, Florida teens argue, no public school should be tasked with defending children against a negligent political class bought and owned by the NRA.

1950s nostalgia also ignores the celebrity class, often movie stars, doing the dirty work for Big Tobacco, ruining the health of America’s youth for the sake of commerce, and this too fits in an ironic and ugly way with misreading why privileged Stoneman Douglas High teens are now waging a battle with the NRA controlling negligent political leaders.

Simply saying something is true doesn’t make it true, and just because it is normal doesn’t mean it is right.

The Stoneman Douglas High teen activists were born for this moment. They demonstrate the power of privilege.


Please see these Twitter exchanges as well:

 

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Margins

Although I am sure more people have blocked me on social media, I remain aware of and concerned about two of those—both women, one black and one white.

The reason for my concern is that I would count them both members of the communities I support, ideologically and practically. Also, since I am blocked, I remain mostly uncertain of why, although with one I did have an exchange on an email forum about her perceptions of me (what I view as unwarranted assumptions).

Being blocked, I recognize however, was the result of both these women functioning in much narrower margins than I do because of my privileges of gender, race, and economics. In other words, regardless of my good intentions, regardless of whether or not I behaved in any way that warranted being blocked, these women do not have the margins to risk examining whether I am part of the toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, or toxic affluence that threatens them moment by moment.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much label the margins of economic privilege and disadvantage as “slack” (privilege and thus huge margins) and “scarcity” (disadvantage and thus very thin margins). I think those terms apply equally as well to gender and race.

In retrospect, I am reminded of a moment from my teaching high school English when a white boy brushed a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” from his desk when I handed them out, announcing that he wasn’t reading that “[racial slur].” The student was adamant that King was an adulterer, having a pamphlet that excoriated King; the pamphlet, if one bothered to look carefully, had been created by the KKK, which had a vibrant following in the small town just south of the high school.

The margins (scarcity) for MLK—using “adultery” as a veneer for racism—must be placed against, for example, the social slack afforded John F. Kennedy, who is allowed his claimed accomplishments despite his personal indiscretions, unlike how any small failure by MLK is used to discredit all of his work.

More recently, the US has witnessed eight years of unrelenting discrediting of Barack Obama as president through unfounded claims about his birthplace; Obama as the first black president had to be perfect or completely discredited.

Immediately succeeding Obama is Donald Trump, who survived video/audio evidence of language and attitudes toward women most people would not tolerate in children; in other words, Trump’s gender, race, and economic privilege (slack) is so powerful, he appears nearly capable of doing anything with impunity.

Trump himself declared this himself during his campaign:

This is the most vivid and gross example of the power of slack grounded in race, gender, and economic privilege.

Black Film/ White Film: More on Slack and Scarcity

Since I am a comic book advocate, having collected Marvel comics throughout the 1970s and more recently published scholarship on the intersections of race and gender in superhero comics, I have watched and listened carefully to the public responses to Black Panther, the most recent Marvel Universe film.

While I have not yet seen the film, I have followed the sputtering path of the character Black Panther since he was introduced in the 1960s; as a teenager collecting comics, I was a fan of Black Panther as well as The Falcon, who was cover-billed along with Captain America throughout much of the 1970s.

Black_Panther_Vol_1_1  Captain_America_Vol_1_117

I lacked critical discernment as a teen, but can recognize that these two characters laid a foundation for my discovering black authors and thinkers in college as I struggled to cast off the worst aspects of my upbringing in the racist and intolerant South.

Most have responded to Black Panther the film with enthusiasm and even glee, and the box office has reflected some powerfully positive messages about black films and actors. But a few have begun to unpack problems with nationalism and the white savior trope in the narrative.

Here we may be inclined to argue that the highest form of equity, the absence of racism, would require that the film receive something akin to objective analyses—not unduly criticized (veneers for racism) and not sheltered from criticism as a sort of inverse racism.

There, however, this claim is not as simple as it may seem—especially if we ground how we respond to the film in terms of slack and scarcity, in terms of the King/Kennedy inequity.

Certainly, the film cannot be above credible criticism, but in that pursuit, we must guard against the perfection bar often manifested as scarcity when applied to disadvantages associated with race, class, and gender.

White films, for example, are not called “white,” but simply films. Adam Sandler and Kevin James, for example, have long resumes of films that certainly have been allowed an incredible amount of slack—forgiven the nearly unforgivable (think Trump) for hopes of some glimmer of humor nestled among the truly cliche, offensive, and just plain lazy.

Black Panther, even in the praise, is rendered into scarcity as a black film, and by implication must carry the weight of all black films, all black actors, all black writers (although the character was spawned by white creators in a very white, often racist industry).

Since Kevin James was allowed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, just how close to perfect does Black Panther need to be?

The truest test of equity may be that all films have the same degree of slack.

School Safety: Slack and Scarcity as a Matter of Life and Death

While many in the US are reveling in the pop culture frenzy around Black Panther, the ugliest aspects of American culture once again expose how our on-screen violences pale against our gun culture and the ever-present threat of mass shootings, especially at the expense of students in school.

Although most mass shooters are white men, gun violence tends to prompt concerns about gangs and black-on-black crime, yet another demonstration of inequitable margins: White male mass shooters never prompt outcries about all white men (since the shooters are often framed as mentally ill) even though simply the threat of terrorism evokes blanket narratives and even policies about Muslims.

The paradox of gun violence and mass shootings in the US is that Americans have experienced increasingly less crime over the past four or so decades, even as the rate of mass shootings and gun violence remains disturbingly high when compared to other countries.

Debates about gun violence become yet more evidence of slack and scarcity linked to race.

Why has the country responded so positively to the teens speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, Florida but tended to reject or ignore the outcries from teens surrounding the all-to-frequent police shootings of young blacks, the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Simply stated, when anything appears to encroach on the huge slack whites perceive (safety in this case), mainstream responses flair, but the margins for safety are so thin for blacks, for example, that to live in danger as a black person has become normalized beneath the implication that blacks themselves are the ones perpetuating violence.*

Whites as victims (slack), and blacks as violent (scarcity).

Taking care about whether or not we criticize Black Panther holds some important symbolic value, but in terms of how we respond to a school shootings, we are now making decisions that are life and death.

Responses to the Parkland, Florida shooting have focused on how to make schools safer—in part, to avoid the larger gun control debate that is muted by the NRA.

Arming teachers is one extreme, but in an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), Will Britt argues:

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening. Still, they will require unified and emphatic parental endorsement: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

This is a compelling argument to those living in the slack of race privilege, but is a red flag to those living in slack, in very thin margins.

First, Britt’s argument is solidly refuted by evidence:

Impact of Security Measures on Violence

  • There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, 8,9,10,11 and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.12
  • There has not been sufficient research to determine if the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students. 13
  • Some researchers have expressed concern about the widespread use of guards, cameras, and other security technologies, given that so little is known about their effectiveness. 14,15
  • Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students16 and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption17 and higher levels of disorder in schools. 18
  • Evidence from a school–police partnership implemented in New York City reveals that students in these schools continue to experience higher than average problems linked directly to future criminality, compared to students in other New York City schools not involved in the partnership. 19
  • Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.20
  • Research suggests that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools may actually increase levels of violence in schools by strengthening the influence of youth “street” culture with its emphasis on self-protection.21

If these measures do not work, why are they compelling?

Calls for more security, research shows, in fact is more veneer for racism since extreme measures such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras are more common in high-minority schools even when discipline issues are not more pronounced.

White slack dictates that white safety must be protected at all costs; black/brown scarcity dictates that there is no margin of error for protecting against black/brown violence.

American culture is today awash in a triumphant celebration of Black Panther jammed against a national scramble to confront our daily violences in the form of guns.

Turning our schools into fortresses if not prisons, and even arming teachers, presents those with race, gender, and economic slack a much different picture (more safety) than those with race, gender, and economic scarcity (more violence).

Margins still define us, and margins left unchecked are apt to destroy us in the end.


* The mainstream media and political focus on black-on-black crime allows whites to ignore that all crime is mostly same-race since white-on-white crime rates are nearly identical to black-on-black crime rates.

Research excerpt sources:

8 Garcia, C. A. (2003). School safety technology in America: Current use and perceived effectiveness. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 14, 30-54.

9 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

10 Borum, R., Cornell, D. G., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. R. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39, 27-37.

11 Casella, R. (2006). Selling us the fortress: The promotion of techno-security equipment in schools. New York: Routledge.

12 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

13 Hankin, A., Hertz, M., & Simon, T. (2011). Impacts of metal detector use in schools: Insights from 15 years of research. Journal of School Health, 81, 100-106.

14 Birkland, T. A., & Lawrence, R. G. (2009). Media framing and policy change after Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1405-1425.

15 Green, M. B. (2005). Reducing violence and aggression in schools. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6, 236-253.

16 Schreck, C. J., & Miller, J. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2003). Trouble in the school yard: A study of the risk factors of victimization at school. Crime & Delinquency, 49, 460-484.

17 Nickerson, A. B., & Martens, M. R. (2008). School violence: Associations with control, security/enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37, 228-243.

18 Mayer, M. J., & Leaone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333-356.

19 Brady, K. P., Balmer, S., & Phenix, D. (2007). School-police partnership effectiveness in urban schools: An analysis of New York City’s Impact Schools Initiative. Education and Urban Society, 39, 455-478.

20 Warnick, B. R. (2007). Surveillance cameras in schools: An ethical analysis. Harvard Educational Review, 77, 317- 343.

21 Phaneuf, S. W. (2009). Security in schools: Its effect on students. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

The Writing Center Dilemma

In What’s Wrong with Writing Centers, Rose Jacobs reports on Lori Salem’s “quantitative analysis of Temple University’s writing center, which she has directed since 1999. The assistant vice provost wanted to understand its role by investigating who doesn’t visit as well as who does.” Salem discovered:

[T]hat practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers — such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors — cater to individuals who already have a strong grounding in grammar and composition, the sort of students who never turn up. That leaves the most frequent visitors underserved: female students, minority students, and those who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

Salem admits her study is just a beginning since it focuses on one center at one university, but as someone who has been teaching writing for almost four decades, both as a high school English teacher and a college professor of first-year and upper-level writing courses, I can confirm that many of the dilemmas uncovered by Salem ring disturbingly true.

Those two distinctly different teaching experiences have shaped me within a broader unifying way: I have mostly taught myself how to teach writing, having only one real formal experience with learning how to teach writing through the National Writing Project’s summer institute. I don’t have any degree in composition, and didn’t formally study composition in any undergraduate or graduate courses.

As a high school teacher for almost twenty years, I learned mostly by trial-and-error, and then was saved by my regional NWP affiliate, the Spartanburg Writing Project, where I also was a co-lead instructor for a few summers before heading to higher education full time.

But the last decade has been an incredibly fertile and difficult journey with how writing is taught in higher education. I have been teaching first-year writing, along with an upper-level writing course, and I briefly held a small administrative role in guiding our first-year seminars.

Over that time, my university has (finally) formalized a writing program by naming a Director of Writing Programs and seeking ways to make the writing and media lab and program more cohesive (adding the upper-level writing/research requirement to the curriculum, for example). The teaching of writing is also being more directly addressed by creating Faculty Writing Fellows, faculty who participate in a year-long seminar addressing writing instruction.

As I have participated in and witnessed these recent growing pains at my university, I can offer some anecdotal, but I think credible, observations that match well with Salem’s research:

  • Writing instruction at the course/class/individual faculty level suffers from a lack of purpose and cohesion without a school/college unifying mission and set of shared goals. In other words, how does any class/course contribute to some set of outcomes related to writing all students should have experiences in as integral to graduating?
  • Class-level writing instruction and writing centers/labs must guard against two corrosive but alluring perspectives: (1) viewing writing instruction as remediation, and (2) seeing any course or session on “how to write” as some sort of one-shot inoculation against “errors” (a deficit view).
  • Both learning to writing and teaching writing are journeys, and must remain grounded in clearly defined contexts. Disciplinary writing in high school and college is much different than becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. For example, composition faculty and K-12 English teachers define “writing workshop” differently than creative writing faculty (think MFA).
  • Teaching writing always involves tension among concerns about craft, content, and correctness. A writing program, and writing center practices, must address how these elements will be taught as well as how each is weighted (not if, but when, how, and why). Many who come to teaching writing from disciplines outside English or composition are over-concerned with correctness (teaching writing is correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage) and significantly focused on disciplinary content and the logic of student claims, evidence, and elaboration in writing.
  • Teaching writing is enhanced by those teachers being writers themselves, but this expectation must be navigated carefully since few faculty are writers and some may write mostly out of necessity, not out of a drive to be writers.
  • The inequity unmasked by Salem’s study often presents itself in the teaching of writing through which students receive what instruction. So-called reluctant or remedial students (disproportionately black, brown, and/or poor) receive instruction on correctness (grammar, mechanics, usage) often in isolation (worksheets on skills) and are allowed or required to compose very little or not at all. The so-called advanced or gifted students (disproportionately white and affluent) compose more often and are allowed to venture into “creative” writing, experimentation, and choice. These instructional choices perpetuate inequity.

Writing centers and programs, then, are necessarily integral parts of equity and academic goals in any school, college, or university. Students must be better served at the class/course level as well as over the entire school/college experience through a cohesive writing program that rejects seeing the teaching of writing as remediation or an inoculation, but embraces authentic purposeful instruction.

Just as Salem’s data show that students view writing centers as ineffectual, thus unimportant, faculty often marginalize the status of teaching writing—something to be done by someone else or not relevant to their discipline.

Writing, however, is an essential tool of not only students and academics, but also being fully human.

Learning to write and teaching writing are both being mis-served in formal education, with the shortcomings of writing centers as one example, and as a consequence, so are our students and those charged to teach them.


For Further Consideration

Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?, Lori Salem

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen

Differences in College Access and Choice among Racial/Ethnic Groups: Identifying Continuing Barriers, Sylvia Hurtado, Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Charlotte Briggs and Byung-Shik Rhee

Minimal Marking, Richard H. Haswell

Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students, Randall Smith

The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

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

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Ferguson adds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Research and Miscellaneous Roundup

Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler

Abstract

Though some warnings about online “echo chambers” have been hyperbolic, tendencies toward selective exposure to politically congenial content are likely to extend to misinformation and to be exacerbated by social media platforms. We test this prediction using data on the factually dubious articles known as “fake news.” Using unique data combining survey responses with individual-level web traffic histories, we estimate that approximately 1 in 4 Americans visited a fake news website from October 7-November 14, 2016. Trump supporters visited the most fake news websites, which were overwhelmingly pro-Trump. However, fake news consumption was heavily concentrated among a small group — almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets. We also find that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news and that fact-checks of fake news almost never reached its consumers.

Educational opportunity in early and middle childhood: Variation by place and age, Sean F. Reardon

Abstract

I use standardized test scores from roughly 45 million students to describe the temporal structure of educational opportunity in over 11,000 school districts—almost every district in the US. For each school district, I construct two measures: the average academic performance of students in grade 3 and the within-cohort growth in test scores from grade 3 to 8. I argue that third grade average test scores can be thought of as measures of the average extent of educational opportunities available to students in a community prior to age 9. Growth rates in average scores from grade 3 to 8 can be thought of as reflecting educational opportunities available to children in a school district between the ages of 9 and 14.

I document considerable variation among school districts in both average third grade scores and test score growth rates. Importantly, the two measures are uncorrelated, indicating that the characteristics of communities that provide high levels of early childhood educational opportunity are not the same as those that provide high opportunities for growth from third to eighth grade. This suggests that the role of schools in shaping educational opportunity varies across school districts. Moreover, the variation among districts in the two temporal opportunity dimensions implies that strategies to improve educational opportunity may need to target different age groups in different places. One additional implication of the low correlation between growth rates and average third grade scores is that measures of average test scores are likely very poor measures of school effectiveness. The growth measure I construct does not isolate the contribution of schools to children’s academic skills, but is likely closer to a measure of school effectiveness than are measures of average test scores.

Tax Bill Would Increase Abuse of Charitable Giving Deduction, with Private K-12 Schools as the Biggest Winners, Carl Davis

From Executive Summary

In its rush to pass a major rewrite of the tax code before year’s end, Congress appears likely to enact a “tax reform” that creates, or expands, a significant number of tax loopholes. One such loophole would reward some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals with a strategy for padding their own bank accounts by “donating” to support private K-12 schools. While a similar loophole exists under current law, its size and scope would be dramatically expanded by the legislation working its way through Congress.2 This report details how, as an indirect result of capping the deduction for state income taxes paid, the bill expected to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee would enlarge a loophole being abused by taxpayers who steer money into private K-12 school voucher funds. This loophole is available in 10 states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The Sound of White Silence, @michaelharriot

White is a blank space.

It is the unwritten adjective that filled the infinite and simultaneously minuscule void between “all” and “men” when our founding fathers so eloquently declared their independence. The word “white” is not included in the Constitution, but it is understood by all to be the unmentioned modifier in “we the people.” It is our national equivalent to the aphonic letter “e.” We could always see it, but as a country we agreed to adhere to the first rule of American phonetics:

The “white” is silent.

The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class”—or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.

Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, some context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

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

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

The differences are striking….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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


For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

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