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:
Agree. I’d bet few could pass a basic history test…
Yet, there were decisive turning points where progressive theory was intentionally marginalized, which is why we now forget
— Benjamin Doxtdator (@doxtdatorb) April 10, 2018
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  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.
 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.
More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.
Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.
Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.
Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.
See the full review here.
Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”
Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.
When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.
As part of an ongoing series of reports by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know makes broad claims about teacher education based on a limited analysis of textbooks and syllabi. The report argues that teacher education materials, specifically educational psychology and methods textbooks, are a waste of funds and do not adequately focus on what the report identifies as six essential strategies. These inadequacies, the report contends, result in ill-prepared teacher candidates lacking in “research-proven instructional strategies” (p. vi). The report offers recommendations for textbook publishers, teacher education programs, and state departments of education. However, it is not grounded in a comprehensive examination of the literature on teaching methods, and it fails to validate the evaluative criteria it employs in selecting programs, textbooks, and syllabi. The single source it relies on to justify its “six essential strategies” provides limited support for NCTQ’s claims. This primary source concludes, with only one exception, that the evidence supporting each of the six strategies is only moderate or weak. Limiting the analysis to one source that provides only tepid support renders the report of little value for improving teacher preparation, selecting textbooks, or guiding educational policy.
In the spirit of good journalism, let me start with full disclosure.
I am on the Editorial Board of NEPC (you’ll see why this matters in a few paragraphs), and that means I occasionally provide blind peer review of research reviews conducted by scholars for NEPC. That entails my receiving a couple very small stipends, but I have never been directly or indirectly asked to hold any position except to base my reviews on the weight of the available evidence.
Further, since this appears important, I am not now and have never been a member of any teacher or professor union. Recently, I spoke to a local union-based conference, but charged no fee (my travel from SC to TN was covered).
Finally, I have been confronting the repeatedly poor journalism covering education and education reform for several years, notably see my recent piece, Education Journalism Deserves an F: A Reader.
My key points about the failures of journalism covering education include (i) journalists assuming objective poses, that are in fact biased, (ii) the lack of expertise among journalists about the history and research base in education, and (iii) the larger tradition in journalism to dispassionately (again a pose, but not real) present “both sides” of every issue regardless of the credibility of those sides or regardless of whether or not the issue is really binary (let’s highlight also that virtually no issue is binary).
So I remain deeply disappointed when major outlets, here Education Week, and experienced journalists, specifically Stephen Sawchuk, contribute to the worst of education reform by remaining trapped in the worst aspects of covering education.
Sawchuk’s U.S. Teacher-Prep Rules Face Heavy Criticism in Public Comments includes a common framing of “both sides” in order to address the USDOE’s new proposal to reform teacher education.
That framing pits NEPC against the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—although a number of others with stakes in the debate are listed. What is notable here is how Sawchuk chooses to characterize each; for example:
Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies….
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education….
Only a handful of commenters were outright supportive of the rules. At press time, a coalition of groups were preparing to submit a comment backing the proposal. The coalition’s members included: Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee; Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that supports teacher-leadership efforts; the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group; and the alternative-certification programs Teach For America and TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.
In the U.S., labeling NEPC “left-leaning” and highlighting union affiliation is just as coded as calling Richard Sherman a thug. We all know that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is dismissive, prompting Audrey Amrein-Beardsley to ask, “Why such (biased) reporting, Sawchuk?”
Yet, Fordham supports “stronger accountability” and not a single group in the third listing has a “nudge” despite, for example, NCTQ entirely lacking credibility.
Also, NEPC has a hyperlink, but none of the others? And where is the link to the actual report from NEPC, and is there any credible evidence the report on the USDOE’s proposal is biased or flawed?
Since traditional faux-fair-and-balanced journalism continues to mislead, since we are unlikely to see a critical free press any time soon, let me, a mere blogger with 31 years of teaching experience (18 in a rural public SC high school, and the remainder in teacher education) and about twenty years of educational scholarship offer some critical clarifications.
First, here is the abstract for Kevin K. Kumashiro‘s review of Proposed 2015 Federal Teacher Preparation Regulations by the USDOE:
On December 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft of proposed new Teacher Preparation Regulations under Title II of the Higher Education Act with a call for public comments within 60 days. The proposal enumerates federally mandated but state-enforced regulations of all teacher preparation programs. Specifically, it requires states to assess and rate every teacher preparation program every year with four Performance Assessment Levels (exceptional, effective, at-risk, and low-performing), and states must provide technical assistance to “low-performing” programs. “Low-performing” institutions and programs that do not show improvement may lose state approval, state funding, and federal student financial aid. This review considers the evidentiary support for the proposed regulations and identifies seven concerns: (1) an underestimation of what could be a quite high and unnecessary cost and burden; (2) an unfounded attribution of educational inequities to individual teachers rather than to root systemic causes; (3) an improperly narrow definition of teacher classroom readiness; (4) a reliance on scientifically discredited processes of test-based accountability and value-added measures for data analysis; (5) inaccurate causal explanations that will put into place a disincentive for teachers to work in high-needs schools; (6) a restriction on the accessibility of federal student financial aid and thus a limiting of pathways into the teaching profession; and (7) an unwarranted, narrow, and harmful view of the very purposes of education.
If there is anything “left-leaning” or any evidence that union money has skewed this review, I strongly urge Sawchuk or anyone else to provide such evidence—instead of innuendo masked as balanced journalism.
And let’s unpack “left-leaning” by looking at NEPC’s mission:
The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.
A revision appears in order so I can help there also:
Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a
left-leaningthink tank committed to democratic and evidence-based policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generallyopposes market-basededucation policies not supported by the current research base….
Since NEPC is balanced against Fordham, it seems important to note that NEPC has three times awarded Fordham its Bunkum Award (2010, 2008, 2006) for shoddy and biased reports; thus, another revision:
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a free-market think tank which generally backs
strongeraccountability mechanisms in education regardless of evidence to the contrary.
I added the hyperlink to the Fordham mission statement, which uses code also (“options for families,” “efficient,” “innovation,” “entrepreneurship”) to mask their unwavering support not for “stronger” accountability but for market-based policy.
What does all this teach us, then?
All people and organizations—including Education Week, NEPC, and Fordham—are biased. To pretend some are and some aren’t is naive at best and dishonest at worst.
NEPC, I believe, freely admits there is a bias to what reports are selected for review (just as EdWeek chooses what issues to cover and where to place and how to emphasize those pieces), but the reviews implement the most widely accepted practices for transparency and accuracy, blind peer-review. Further, the reviews are freely available online for anyone to examine carefully and critically.
The real story that mainstream media are refusing to cover is that the USDOE (and the so-called reformers such as TFA, NCTQ, DFER, TNTP, etc.) lacks the experience and expertise to form education policy, but the actual researchers and practitioners of the field of education remain marginalized.
Yes, the real story is that those rejecting the USDOE’s proposed teacher education regulations are credible and that the proposal itself (as Kumashiro details) lacks credibility (notably in its use of value-added methods, which has been rejected for use in high-stakes ways by researchers left-leaning, right-leaning, and moderate; see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).
The greatest failure among the mainstream media is the inability of journalists to recognize and then address that their narrative about “reformers v. anti-reformers” is a straw man argument and that the real battle is between those seeking reform built on the research base (researchers and educators consistently marginalized and demonized) and the rich and powerful without credibility committed to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing as a mask for market ideologies—despite three decades of research showing that has not worked.
And since I opened with transparency, let me end with a solid clarification that I am on record as a teacher educator that teacher education desperately needs reforming, as does public education broadly, professional education organizations, and teacher unions. And thus, I recommend the following:
By oft repeating an untruth, men come to believe it themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Melish, Jan. 13, 1812
The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1787
My university sits in the socially and politically conservative South, and our students tend toward a conservative political and world view as well. The most powerful student organizations are self-identified as conservative as well as being awash in power and funding, some from outside the university.
One conservative student organization, supported and funded by a network of such organizations spreading throughout campuses across the U.S., has for years dominated the Cultural Life Program of the university, a series of events students must attend as part of graduation requirements.
Several years ago, this organization brought Ann Coulter to campus, and when I mentioned my own concerns about her credibility during class, a student quickly defended Coulter by saying, “But she has footnotes in her book.”
Coulter’s confrontational conservatism speaks to the world views of many of our students and the greater public of SC, and thus seems credible even without footnotes. That student’s defense highlights a key element in the rise of the dogmatic scholar that has its roots in the 1980s, a period identified by Isaac Asimov as “a cult of ignorance” guided by a new ethic, “Don’t trust the experts.”
April of 2013 is the thirty-year anniversary of A Nation at Risk, a political and popular turning point for America’s perception of not only public education but also education reform as well as the discourse surrounding both. John Holton (2003) and Gerald Bracey (2003) have since then detailed that the report was also, in Bracey’s words a decade ago on the cusp of No Child Left Behind, “false”:
It has been 20 years, though, since A Nation at Risk appeared. It is clear that it was false then and is false now. Today, the laments are old and tired – and still false. “Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars” trumpeted the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ho hum. The various special interest groups in education need an other treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It’s called No Child Left Behind. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.
What was “false” about A Nation at Risk?
First, Holton, as an insider, exposed that Ronald Reagan himself directed the commission to insure his agenda for public schools:
We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don’t ask to waste more federal money on education — “we have put in more only to wind up with less.” Just discover excellent schools to serve as models for all the others. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned.
Second, Bracey noted that despite the report depending on research and data, only one trend line out of nine suggested anything negative—and that the commission focused on that one trend line in order to comply with the political pressure aimed at the committee.
And third, A Nation at Risk as a political document parading as scholarship received not only a pass from the media but also a rush to benefit from the bad news by many stakeholders, as Bracey explained:
Alas, nothing else is new and, indeed, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one’s reform agenda – even if it does make teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel a little better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists want to teach religion and not worry about the First Amendment; Catholic schools want to stanch their student hemorrhage; home schooling advocates want just that; and various groups no doubt just want to be with “their own kind.” All groups believe that they will improve their chances of getting what they want if they pummel the publics.
A Nation at Risk, the process involved to create the report, the uncritical media endorsement of the report, and the public and academic embracing of the claims represent a seminal moment in the rise of the dogmatic scholar, one foreshadowed by Asimov and personified by Coulter.
Recently, a debate between Diane Ravitch and Patrick Wolf highlights how the dogmatic scholar looks today. Mercedes Schneider examines that debate by first addressing Wolf’s credentials, Endowed Chair in School Choice, Education Reform, University of Arkansas.
Both Schneider and Ravitch raise concerns about the conflict of interests when a scholar holds a chair in a department that is heavily funded by school choice advocates, as Schneider explains about Wolf’s complaint that Ravitch attacked him personally:
Whereas she does not personally attack Wolf, Ravich certainly clearly exposes Wolf’s conflict of interest in evaluating a program obviously supported by his funders.
I agree with Ravitch that this conflict of interest is noteworthy for its undeniable potential in “shaping” study reporting and outcomes.
At the root of this debate is the unmasking of the dogmatic scholar and the concurrent rise of conservative advocacy taking on the appearance of scholarship despite the historical claims among conservatives that pointy-headed intellectuals shouldn’t be trusted (again, read Asimov).
Coulter’s book has footnotes to appear scholarly, and free market think tanks have increasingly embraced a formula that is both deeply deceiving and powerfully effective: (1) Hire fellows with advanced degrees, preferably PhDs, (2) generate reports that include a great deal of data, statistics, and charts/graphs, (3) create scholarly but attractive PDFs of the reports accessible for free through the think tank web sites, (4) aggressively promote the reports through press releases, and (5) circumvent entirely the peer-review process (in fact, conservative think tanks are actively demonizing the peer-review process).
The dogmatic scholar differs from the traditional university-based scholar in a few important ways. The university-based scholar and the promise of academia rest on some basic concepts, including the wall between undue influence and independent thought that tenure affords combined with the self-policing effect of peer-review.
While traditional scholarship, tenure, and peer-review are not without problems, this essential paradigm does allow for (although it cannot guarantee) rich and vibrant knowledge bases to evolve for the sake of knowledge absent the allure of profit or the influence of inexpert authority (tenure stands between university boards of trustees and faculty to insure academic freedom, for example).
As a critical educator and scholar, however, I do reject the traditional view that scholars must be apolitical, must assume some objective stance. In fact, I believe that scholars must be activists.
Therefore, my concern about the rise of the dogmatic scholar is not the activism or advocacy but two key failures found among dogmatic scholarship: (1) masking advocacy as objective (typically behind the use of statistics and charts/graphs), and (2) committing to an ideology despite the weight of evidence to the contrary.
Activist scholars such as Howard Zinn represent the power of taking a public intellectual stance that is both ideologically grounded (social justice) and informed by scholarship, Zinn’s own careful and detailed work as a historian.
Dogmatic scholarship typically found in think tanks but increasingly occurring in externally funded schools, departments, and institutes within universities and colleges (such as Wolf’s role at the University of Arkansas) is represented by a school choice report funded by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which is explicitly a free market advocacy think tank.
Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform, by David Dodenhoff, PhD, was released by WPRI in 2007 with George Lightbourn, representing the institute, lamenting: “The report you are reading did not yield the results I had hoped for.”
Further, despite the evidence of the research commissioned by WPRI, Lightbourn issued a commentary and explained:
So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice. School choice is working and should be improved and expanded. School choice is good for Milwaukee’s children.
While Lightbourn’s commentary raises some concerns about the data, the key message is “evidence be damned, WPRI remains committed to school choice!”
The problem, then, with the rise of the dogmatic scholar is that several contradictions lie underneath the movement.
Conservative America has persistently marginalized and demonized the Left as biased while embracing not only the possibility of objectivity but also the necessity for objectivity, especially among educators, scholars, and researchers (consider the uproar over climate change science).
Yet, conservatives are the base of dogmatic scholars and those who embrace dogmatic scholars (or popular versions such as Coulter)—despite dogmatic scholars being themselves advocates masquerading as objective and academic.
Further, the dogmatic scholar is failing in the exact ways some traditional scholarship fails—allowing the influence of funding and profit to skew the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, since dogmatic scholarship is often driven by market ideology, the influence of funding and profit is common.
The impact of dogmatic scholarship on education reform has been staggering, resulting in a common pattern found among researchers and think tanks committed to reviewing educational research such as Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo, and the National Education Policy Center: The reports coming from dogmatic scholars produce impressive data sets but misleading, incomplete, or contradictory claims and recommendations (see, for example, Baker on the highly publicized Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff study).
The reports coming from dogmatic scholars, notably the school choice research, tends to replicate the comments coming from WPRI about Milwaukee school choice: The claims and recommendations are decided before and in spite of the evidence of the data.
In fact, school choice research has revealed a pattern of making a series of ever-changing claims simply to keep the debate alive and thus the choice agenda vibrant. In the popular and enduring evolution debate, for example, Intelligent Design as a faux science endorses “teach the debate” to lend credibility to their claims and to gain equal footing with the scientific process without actually conforming to that process.
Do Ravitch and Wolf, then, have the right to debate? Of course. Their debate is likely a potentially powerful mechanism for examining education reform.
Does Wolf have a right to advocate for school choice? Again, I believe he does.
The problem, however, with both Wolf’s agenda and the debate is that Wolf wants to hide behind a mask of objectivity and has taken a “holier than thou” stance to marginalize Ravitch’s credible concerns about school choice research.
In the end, the dogmatic scholar fails for the same reason dogma does—because neither can be questioned.
All credible scholarship is rendered more valuable by the light of questions so I will end with a simple solution offered by Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D. at Wolf’s complaint:
Dr. Patrick, Please hurry and de-identify the data you used in your papers and provide it to independent researchers. I have the ability to critique the methodological rigor and quality of your actual research. I am very very much looking forward to it.
Among researchers, no claim is any more credible than the data the claim rests on. As long as dogmatic scholars ignore the data and hide the data, their work will be questioned in ways that also include their motives.
The job of the scholar is not to be objective, but to be transparent—admitting evidence-based stances providing context for claims and recommendations. Dogmatic scholars refuse to be transparent, and their weakness is that entrenched dishonesty.
In short, all scholars likely should heed the opening comments from Jefferson.
Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.
Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.
As compelling as “miracle” schools and “no excuses” ideologies remain in political and public discourse, careful and evidence-based examinations of both repeatedly show that the rhetoric is a mask for corporate-style reform agendas that ignore and perpetuate inequity—instead of confronting inequity.
See this review from NEPC [see press release at Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice]:
REVIEW OF FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
Summary of Review
This Public Agenda report profiles nine high-poverty schools in Ohio that the authors believe have exhibited “sustained success.” It first lists 11 commonly accepted attributes they assert are demonstrated across the profiled schools. The report then offer s six general recommendations for other schools to achieve and sustain success, although the connection between the attributes and the recommendations is unclear. How these “key attributes” and subsequent recommendations were derived from the interviews is not specified. The school selection criteria suggests sample bias. Six of the nine schools were from a state “schools of promise” list and three were not. Four of the schools’ poverty levels were near the state average, belying the high-poverty claim in the report’s title. The report’s biggest deficiency is that, while it is presented as addressing equity needs, and the interviewees pointed out that poverty related factors must be addressed, the recommendations fail to propose remedies or explicitly address these factors. This omission puts the report precariously close to the discredited “no excuses” genre. The common sense nature of the recommendations will likely be found acceptable to many readers, but the proposals are not sufficiently grounded in either the study’s own data or in the larger body of research. In sum, these shortcomings marginalize the work’s usefulness in advancing school reform and educational equity.
Note “The Delusional Contradictions of ‘No Excuses’ Reform and Poverty,” P. L. Thomas, EduSanity
October 10, 2012
EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.
There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”
The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.
Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in hisFinal Words of Advice: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.
• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.
• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.
• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).
• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.
• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).
• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.
• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choice. Charter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how privilege exists upon the back of oppression:
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)
NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.
Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/10/the-delusional-contradictions-of-no-excuses-reform-and-poverty/