First, let’s do the irony: Think outside box inside S.C. classrooms by SC’s executive director of StudentsFirstSC (a political journeyman, and never an educator) is the least outside the box commentary you can read.
Propaganda and baseless claims from a deceptive organization—this is what we face in SC:
- “The key is developing real-world solutions to help students learn, regardless of the hurdles they face outside of the classroom.” No. This is a harmful and failed approach. We need to address inequity in children’s lives and in their schools. Asking children to pretend their real lives don’t exit while they happen to be in school is cruel.
- “Quality teachers should have the freedom to fully use their passion to fuel innovation within their classrooms.” Hint at this sham Op-Ed: “innovation.” A hollow “business” term that means nothing.
- “A great example of innovation is happening right here in Charleston. As recently highlighted in The Post and Courier last week, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a local, public-private partnership. In a short time, this school has achieved remarkable results—setting challenging goals for students and working to help them achieve more.” There remains no proof of these claims except by MSE advocates and those who benefit from such claims.
- “South Carolina’s embrace of educators from Teach for America is a step in the right direction for our state.” TFA is de-professionalizing teaching, has failed as a sham organization, and has seen its popularity significantly decline because of the harm the program does to its recruits and the students they teach.
- “Bradford Swann is executive director of StudentsFirstSC, a non-profit, membership- based organization working to ensure all students have access to great teachers and a quality education, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” This is a pollitical propaganda organization that has no credibility—begun by the thoroughly discredited Michelle Rhee and run by political want-to-be’s.
StudentsFirst churns out the same Op-Eds all over the U.S.—piling on lie after lie in the seemingly never-ending parade of dishonesty in education reform.
Quite disturbing, however, is that this sort of dishonesty has been refuted for decades. For example, I published a piece in 1999, predicting and addressing this exact phenomenon.
A New Honesty in Education—Positivist Measures in a Post-Modern World addressed virtually every element of the recurring Op-Eds by StudentsFirst minions and other edureform robots.
Let me catalog a few here, and, again, this is from 1999 (all directly quoted from the article, with some emphasis added):
- The debates swirling around education never stray too far from the fore-front of key concerns for Americans. In South Carolina, for example, education grew to be a central issue of the 1998 governor’s race—the arguments centering on the lottery and video poker versus vouchers and high standards for teachers and students. Concurrent with the political season, The Atlantic ran a feature article on education—Nicholas Lemann’s “‘Ready Read!'” applauding Robert E. Slavin’s Success for All reading program. Both the South Carolina governor’s race and the Lemann article epitomize a central aspect of the current educational debate—dishonesty. That dishonesty runs through almost all the educational discourse within political arenas; such dishonesty grows from the clash inherent in the power of positivist measurements—primarily through standardized testing—within a culture that is concurrently influenced by post-modern perspectives.
- Since the rise of Taylorism at the turn of the century, education has been driven by a belief in empirical data, the belief that we can objectively generate data from standardized tests to assess both individual students and entire educational systems (Kliebard, 1995, pp. 81-82).
- We must be honest about textbooks and curriculum programs, we must be honest about standardized testing, we must be honest about the nature of educating, and we must be honest with our students in the classroom.
- Gerald W. Bracey (1997) and Herbert M. Kliebard (1995), among others, have noted that throughout the 20th century, the American educational debate has been rife with dishonesty when it benefited both politicians and educators.
- They touted higher standards for teachers (including a new testing format that would reward existing teachers with a bonus if they would take the test and would raise the score needed to gain initial certification); higher standards and a stricter, more scope-and-sequenced curriculum; and choice in education driven by vouchers.
- Lemann clearly embraces a belief in empirical data, a belief that schools should produce workers, and a belief that teachers should get out of the way of a content-rich prescribed curriculum.
- Soon politicians will realize (some already have) that if a test is designed first, and if that test dictates a prescribed curriculum that can be scripted, and if teachers can be forced to train students along that and only that curricular course, tests scores will increase, the public will be pleased (though horribly fooled), and the politicians’ careers will have been boosted.
- Educators must acknowledge that we are increasingly overwhelming students, primarily because too many factions contribute to the educational mix—parents through school boards, politicians through legislation, publishers through textbooks, and educators as practitioners. Prescribed curriculum guides, statewide standards, and textbooks often create a monster too large for either teachers or students to handle.
- A second area for educators to attack vigorously and honestly is the standardized test.
- We must assert honestly that education is still not good enough; it never will be.
- Students leaving third or fourth grade as independent and willing readers will benefit more from their educational experience than our current focus on third graders taking a wide range of standardized tests that do not force the students to produce anything, except merely to bubble.
- Clinging to that which is easily transferred to the student, that which is most manageable to assess, is the most morally and educationally bankrupt behavior existing in education.
Sound familiar? These warning from almost two decades ago?
The StudentsFirst playbook is predictable, but it is also tired and thoroughly disproven.
I begged for a new honesty in education as I taught in public schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
When will political leaders, the media, and the public choose to listen to educators and not con artists out for their own political gain? 
 Yes, I know, a very hollow questions in the 2016 presidential election.
In Randlandia—people of the Pearl Clan and the Onyx Clan—each morning all the children gathered at the Great Pool for Lessons.
Once, the Tribe of Rosewater—a nomadic people without clans—wandered into Randlandia, and since Lessons at the Great Pool were an honored Tradition of Randlandia, the Tribe of Rosewater was invited to gather and watch.
Children of the Pearl Clan arrived in bathing suits and Life Jackets, slipping into the water and swimming about gracefully and quickly as if this is what they were meant to do.
Children of the Onyx Clan came to the Great Pool with bathing suits only, no Life Jackets—and they gathered in a tight bobbing mass, treading water as the children of the Pearl Clan darted and glided here and there around the Great Pool.
A member of the Tribe of Rosewater asked a member of Randlandia, smiling with pride as they watched the Lessons, “What do you do for the children of the Onyx Clan?”
“What do you mean?” came the blank reply.
“That these children must tread water while the children of the Pearl Clan have Life Jackets,” explained the member of the Tribe of Rosewater in a voice filled with compassion.
“Let me show you,” followed with a finger upraised. “Children of the Onyx Clan, what have you learned?”
In unison and loudly while treading water dutifully, the children of the Onyx Clan chanted, “Treading water is not an excuse!”
The Randlandian beamed with pride and added: “We are instilling grit in the children of the Onyx Clan so that they too someday can glide through the water as effortlessly as these children of the Pearl Clan!”
“But—” stammered the member of the Tribe of Rosewater, “but that is cruel and unfair.”
And this was the day new words were brought to the people of Randlandia by the Tribe of Rosewater—”cruel” and “unfair.”
Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:
Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.
But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.
Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.
The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:
According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…
Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.
However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.
First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology , as examined by Paul Gorksi:
Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).
Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.
Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.
This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.
As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”
This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.
One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.
The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”
Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.
Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.
But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).
As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.
In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.
We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).
The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:
At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.
The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.
And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.
Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:
Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.
The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
 See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).
Yet more public relations propaganda about Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood from the Post and Courier—this time with a little extra ugliness not-so-subtly framing the article.
The “no excuses” charter school playbook is in full force as the article opens by focusing on the school’s selection process for teachers: you see, the real problem with schools is teachers who don’t care, who don’t try, and who embody the soft bigotry of low expectations:
“You’d think that those would be pretty simple questions,” Campbell said. “If you’re in education, you should assume that all kids can learn. But there’s a lot of implicit bias in teachers that we’ve found (toward) kids in poverty, kids of color.”
Trigger: “bad” teacher myth.
And then, while suggesting teachers are too often racists, the racism inherent in these sorts of takeover strategies is slipped in; you see, the other problem is poor black children need to be trained:
Brentwood’s high standards start with behavior. Campbell said teachers instruct students in how to walk in the halls, how to act in the cafeteria and even how to sharpen a pencil.
“They get four lessons on the playground before they’re allowed to touch any equipment,” Campbell said.
Trigger: “grit” narrative.
But all this is old hat—the nasty “grit” and “no excuses” model—and the real ugliness is saved for the end:
Founder and CEO of Meeting Street Schools Ben Navarro also addressed some concerns raised by education activists, who have been unsuccessfully filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the district to see all of the funding sources at Brentwood. They have also objected to the school’s special waivers from South Carolina’s teacher employment protection laws. He said his school had more oversight than most others, as Postlewait sits on Brentwood’s executive committee.
“What is the agenda of people doing the attacking? Is it about adults?” Navarro said.
That’s right, lazy bigoted teachers, poor black children in need of character training, and education activists with agendas—that’s what wrong with public education and serving high-poverty minority children.
Actually, methinks he doth protest too much.
If there is an agenda, we should suspect it is with those who haven’t provided the data.
The article gives a hint that Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood is making its grand claims of unusual success based on MAP scores—but there is no way to confirm if those claims and that data are really about anything exceptional.
The real story here is buried in the middle of the article:
Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood also offers what Campbell calls “wraparound services,” including a full-time speech therapist and a behavior interventionist. To maintain a racially diverse teaching staff, Meeting Street recruits teachers at historically black colleges and universities.
Part of the Meeting Street strategy also has to do with money. At Brentwood, Meeting Street Schools currently pitches in about $4,000 per student on top of the district’s $9,900 in per-pupil funding. The district’s partnership with Meeting Street Schools will reach a “sunset” after Burns and Brentwood have both expanded to the fifth grade, at which point the district will have to figure out how to fund the programs itself.
As I have been documenting , we know that money makes a difference when addressing high-poverty populations of students, we know that “miracle” schools almost always prove to be mirages, we know that charter schools who claim success usually benefit from student attrition and underserving high-needs populations (ELL and special needs students), and we know that small-scale success may be impossible to scale to all public schools.
What we don’t know is how or if any of this is relevant about Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood.
What we do know is that a lot of press release propaganda continues to roll out while the data that would settle the issue do not.
If “What is the agenda?” is good for educational advocates, it is certainly essential for those positioned to benefit from big claims and hedging on allowing third-party examinations of the full body of evidence.
I. School Choice, Charter Choice
Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, Nikole Hannah-Jones
When the New York City Public Schools catalog arrived in the mail one day that spring, with information about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new universal prekindergarten program, I told Faraji that I wanted to enroll Najya in a segregated, low-income school. Faraji’s eyes widened as I explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means “liberated” and “free” in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem. Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.
One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.
As I told Faraji my plan, he slowly shook his head no. He wanted to look into parochial schools, or one of the “good” public schools, or even private schools. So we argued, pleading our cases from the living room, up the steps to our office lined with books on slavery and civil rights, and back down, before we came to an impasse and retreated to our respective corners. There is nothing harder than navigating our nation’s racial legacy in this country, and the problem was that we each knew the other was right and wrong at the same time. Faraji couldn’t believe that I was asking him to expose our child to the type of education that the two of us had managed to avoid. He worried that we would be hurting Najya if we put her in a high-poverty, all-black school. “Are we experimenting with our child based on our idealism about public schools?” he asked. “Are we putting her at a disadvantage?”
Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels, including the following:
- Both depend on “racially sanitized rhetoric,” according to Alexander, that thinly masks racism. “Getting tough on crime” justifies disproportional arrests, convictions and sentencing for African Americans; “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” justify highly authoritarian and punitive schools disproportionally serving high-poverty children of color.
- Both depend on claims of objective mechanisms – laws for the war on drugs and test scores for education reform – to deflect charges of racism. Alexander recognizes “this system is better designed to create [emphasis in original] crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals,” (p. 236) just as test-based education reform creates and does not address the achievement gap.
- Both depend on racialized fears among poor and working-class whites, which Alexander identifies in the Reagan drug war agenda: “In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the ‘excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse’ and thus built on the success of the earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race” (p. 48). The charter school movement masks segregation within a progressive-friendly public school choice.
- Both depend on either current claims of post-racial America or the goal of a post-racial society: “This system of control depends far more on racial indifference [emphasis in original] . . . than racial hostility,” Alexander notes. (p. 203)
- Both depend on a bipartisan and popular commitment to seemingly obvious goals of crime eradication and world-class schools.
- Both depend on the appearance of African American support. Alexander explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as ‘proof’ that race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda” (p. 42).
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.
II. GPA v. SAT/ACT
The Alaska study, conducted by a regional research laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that SATs, ACTs and the placement tests used by the University of Alaska were all poor predictors of how a student might do in a college-level math or English class. Many students who did well on these exams bombed their college classes, and vice versa. Instead, the researchers found that if college administrators had simply looked at the students’ high school GPAs, they would have done a much better job at figuring out who needs to relearn high school material and who doesn’t.
“We definitely should be including GPAs when assessing college readiness,” said Michelle Hodara, the lead author of the study and a senior researcher at Education Northwest. “We found the same thing that community college researchers and practitioners are finding, that high school GPA is a really powerful measure of college readiness, even for students who want to earn a four-year degree.”
This study examines the postsecondary readiness of first-time students who enrolled in the University of Alaska system over a four-year period. The study calculates the proportion of students considered academically underprepared for college and how placement rates for developmental education (that is, non–credit-bearing courses) vary for different groups of students. The study also determines the proportion of students placed in developmental education who eventually enrolled in and passed college English and math. Finally, the analysis looks at whether high school grades, rather than exam performance, are a better predictor of success in college-level courses.
Results show that developmental education rates were higher in math than English for students pursuing any degree type and increased as the gap between high school exit and college entry grew. Among students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, developmental placement rates were highest for Black students from urban areas of the state (in math) and Alaska Native students from rural areas (in English) compared to all other student groups. Almost half (47 percent) of students placed in developmental courses eventually passed college English and almost a quarter (23 percent) passed college math. For students who enrolled directly in college, high school grade point average was a stronger predictor of college-level English and math performance than were SAT, ACT, and ACCUPLACER scores. Secondary and postsecondary stakeholders can use the findings to help identify students in need of support to be college-ready and to consider further conversation and additional research regarding whether and how to use high school grade point average as part of the placement process.
Manuel Alfaro is the former executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board.
Beginning on May 15, 2016, Alfaro has published a series of posts on Linkedin in an apparent effort to reveal the haphazard construction of the new SAT, released and first administered in March 2016 and again, in June. (He is also posting info on Twitter: @SATinsider.)
Below are excerpts from Alfaro’s Linkedin posts, all of which provide an enlightening read concerning the sham Coleman has thrown together and labeled the “new SAT.”
A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.
Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.
As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.
Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.
So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?
The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:
- Failure Factories
- Lessons in Fear
- Who’s My Teacher Today
- Hear From the Kids
- Reports Spur Visit From Education Chief
Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.
And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.
That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.
Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.
One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:
Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?
The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.
You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.
And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.
The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?
The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.
Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”
That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.
And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.
Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.
If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.
Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.
Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.
Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.
Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.
Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.
Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.
Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.
Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.
I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.
As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.
We both can and should do better.
In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin confronts “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:
What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….
I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)
Among K-12 educators and the general public, terms such as “colonialism,” “critical pedagogy,” and even “racism” may seem merely academic—ideas teased out among scholars in their ivory towers. However, as Emdin carefully details and interrogates, vulnerable populations of students (mostly black, brown, and poor) as well as the teachers charged with serving those students experience daily the realities of “white folks’ pedagogy” that demands assimilation and compliance from those students.
For vulnerable populations of students, formal schooling at the K-12 levels, Emdin argues, is stunningly similar to “[t]he Carlisle School [that] employed a militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to the white norm” (p. 4). Then and now, many educators participating in education-as-assimilation were and are motivated by good intentions (consider Teach For America core members today).
Emdin focuses his work on how all educators (including white folks who teach in the hood) should reconsider their views of race and social class while teaching the “neoindigenous,” his term for students of color and living in poverty who are currently the target of re-segregation in “no excuses” charter schools.
For White Folks arrives as more voices are pushing against education reform that claims to serve vulnerable populations while mis-serving them. Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.” And Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:
In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.
Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:
Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.
At the core of Emdin’s experiences as a student of color, a teacher of color, and a scholar as well as teacher educator is his antidote to the failures of both traditional education and the recent thirty years of education reform, reality pedagogy:
Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goals of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. (p. 27)
Echoing and refining Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy concepts of teacher-student and student-teacher, Emdin carefully walks the reader through his own journey to embracing and practicing reality pedagogy while detailing in very concrete ways what this looks like in real classrooms with real students and teachers.
I could argue that Emdin’s book is a wonderful critical pedagogy primer, and that could mislead you into thinking his is just more of the “merely academic”—but this book certainly is not that.
This recommendation and review cannot adequately cover everything Emdin accomplishes—and I really don’t want to take away from educators and anyone who cares about education and children, especially vulnerable populations of children, reading carefully Emdin’s own words—but I want to highlight a few key reasons to consider carefully For White Folks:
- First, Emdin’s reality pedagogy is both a call for embracing culturally relevant education with the neoindigenous and a powerful argument for the essential elements of how all teachers should teach all students.
- This book in total is an outstanding entry point to confronting stereotypes about race and class while also stepping away from deficit perspectives about neoindigenous students as well as teaching and learning in general.
- Emdin speaks to a possible revolution in education that rejects accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests in order to embrace holding everyone responsible for teaching children; this is about authentic and challenging student-centered education in the name of individual and community liberation.
- Reality pedagogy seeks ways in which students and their teachers can form a classroom and school cosmopolitanism that is unlike the inequities of their surrounding communities, states, and country: “cosmopolitanism is an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (p. 105).
- The many practical aspects of Emdin’s work forces teachers to reconsider daily practice with the neoindigenous and all students: instruction, content, evidence of student learning, technology, pop culture, and social media. I could also say this is a great methods primer, but again, that could be misleading.
Emdin’s For White Folks is often a confessional memoir in which Emdin speaks to his own experiences as a black male student rendered invisible, but who became an agent of “white folks’ pedagogy” when he began to teach. Much of this book is about his transformation that has become teacher education and teaching as activism—activism in the name of neoindigenous and all students.
In his brief conclusion, Emdin shares his own touchstones for teaching, and in one he strikes a note we cannot, we must not ignore:
The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206)
Recommended Companion Texts
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), Paul Gorski
NOTE: As I read, I found myself stuck at the beginning of Chapter 1 because my copy of For White Folk is an early printing that names the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as Bigger Thomas, who is actually the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. After I posted about Emdin’s book on the NCTE Connected Community, I heard from another ELA teacher concerned about the error. I reached out to Emdin, who explained this was an editorial error to be corrected in newer printings. Please don’t let this mistake distract from Emdin’s great work and scholarship.