From “Remediation” to “No Excuses”: The Indignity of Deficit Thinking

Speaking in Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861, in his “Corner Stone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, carefully enumerated the justification for secession among Southern states.

At length, Stephens addressed slavery: “The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”

That “proper status”—according to Stephens and the declarations of secession by Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia— was misrepresented in the U.S. Constitution, that “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”

The Confederacy, instead, embraced “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens chastised the North because “[t]hey assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.”

Stephens called on the triple bedrocks of authority in his statement of the inequality of the races—science, law, and religion:

This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science….

With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.

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While apologists for Southern heritage remain unable or unwilling to confront the blatant racism of the Confederacy, many today remain nearly universal in our inability or unwillingness to recognize and then confront racism, classism, and sexism in the form of deficit thinking.

Deficit thinking, as Stephens represented, is imposing onto groups or individuals deficits as the primary characteristics of their humanity. In education, deficit thinking is pervasive and the foundational mechanism for formal schooling as an institution that reflects and perpetuates bigotry, inequity, and marginalization of people based on status instead of merit.

Some deficit thinking appears nearly harmless because of its common-place use—for example, the term and concept of “remediation.”

Remediation as a normalized deficit concept is at the heart of the third-grade retention movement masquerading as reading policy.

Remediation is built on several flawed assumptions: (i) learning is predictably linear and sequential, (ii) so-called skills such as reading can be accurately quantified (as in “grade level”), and (iii) some “types” of learning (associated with rates and/or biological ages of the students) are lesser than others (basic skills versus higher-order thinking skills, for example).

Remediation also fails a basic point of logic: If remediation is teaching a student something that student doesn’t know, isn’t all teaching remediation?

Remediation, then, is deficit thinking because we must first establish “third grade reading” and then test children in order to label them deficient—and thus the ultimate flaw of grade retention is allowing that seemingly scientific but biased quantifying to represent the entirety of any student.

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Many key ideologies and practices in the education reform movement, as well, are masks for deficit thinking: culture of poverty, “grit,” the “word gap,” and “no excuses.”

As deficit thinking, all of these are driven by and contribute to unacknowledged racism and classism (often among those claiming to be fighting bias and inequity).

To say “poverty is not an excuse” or that student success depends on “grit” is to “blame the victim” since the focus of these slogans and the educational practices built on them highlight the students as deficient and thus needing to be “fixed.”

The lineage from the bald-faced racism of Stephens to the paternalistic and coded racism/classism of “grit,” “no excuses,” and the “word gap” is deficit thinking.

The racism of the Confederacy did not hide behind code, but more than 150 years later, we are faced with finding the will to decode and debunk the deficit thinking that is just as corrosive to individuals and society as corner-stone speeches.

Remediation, grade retention, lessons in “grit,” “no excuses” charter schools, strategies to end the “word gap”—these all disproportionately target black, brown, and poor children.

Those ideologies and practices, however, do not validate claims of deficient children, but expose a deficit of basic humanity among those in positions to honor the dignity of all children, but instead continue to choose otherwise.

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About 100 years after Stephens’s racist declaration of secession, author Ralph Ellison concluded in “What These Children Are Like”: “I’m fascinated by this whole question of language.”

“The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists,” Ellison explained:

precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

Ellison’s lecture to teachers was an extended confrontation of deficit thinking, a powerful refuting of seeing black children and anyone’s language as deficient. His talk ended with a stirring plea:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Deficit thinking in its many forms is fruitless for its indignity.

For Further Reading

The Moynihan Report at Fifty, Stephen Steinberg

Letter to the Editor: The Moynihan Report at Fifty, Daniel Geary

The Moynihan Report Is Turning 50. Its Ideas on Black Poverty Were Wrong Then and Are Wrong Now, Daniel Geary

Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

NOTE: Below is a repost from 23 August 2012 with small edits. With great regret, I see no reason to write something new since the Chicago mayoral election and the announcement of Hillary Clinton entering the presidential election have offered clear proof educators still have no political party. I do, however, offer some important additions after the repost from W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin. I recommend them highly.

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Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

For about thirty years now, public education as well as its teachers and students have been the focus of an accountability era driven by recurring calls for and the implementation of so-called higher standards and incessant (and now “next generation”) testing. At two points during this era, educators could blame Ronald Reagan’s administration for feeding the media frenzy around the misleading A Nation at Risk and George W. Bush’s administration for federalizing the accountability era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—both under Republican administrations.

For those who argued that Republicans and Democrats were different sides of the same political coin beholden to corporate interests, education advocates could point to Republicans with an accusatory finger and claim the GOP was anti-public education while also endorsing Democrats as unwavering supporters of public education. To claim Republicans and Democrats were essentially the same was left to extremists and radicals, it seemed.

As we approach the fall of 2015 and the next presidential election, however, educators and advocates for public education have found that the position of the extremists—Republicans and Democrats are the same—has come true under the Barack Obama administration.

Educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators, public education, or teachers unions.

Democrats and Republicans: Our Orwellian Future Is Now

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

1984, George Orwell

Behind the historical mask that Democrats support strongly public education and even teachers specifically and workers broadly, the Obama administration has presented a powerful and misleading education campaign that is driven by Obama as the good cop and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the bad cop. Obama Good Cop handles the discourse that appeals to educators by denouncing the rising test culture in 2011:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.

Yet, simultaneously, Secretary Duncan Bad Cop was endorsing and the USDOE was implementing Race to the Top, creating provisions for states to opt out of NCLB, and endorsing Common Core—each of which increases both the amount of standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with those tests by expanding the accountability from schools and students to teachers.

Under Obama, Democratic education policy and agendas, embodied by Duncan, have created a consistently inconsistent message. During his campaign mode for a second term, Obama once again offered conflicting claims about education—endorsing a focus on reducing class size (despite huge cuts for years in state budgets that have eliminated teachers and increased class size, which many education reformers endorse) and making a pitch to support teachers unions and even increasing spending on education, leading Diane Ravitch to ponder:

Well, it is good to hear the rhetoric. That’s a change. We can always hope that he means it. But that, of course, would mean ditching Race to the Top and all that absurd rightwing rhetoric about how schools can fix poverty, all by themselves.

Throughout his presidency, Obama’s discourse has been almost directly contradicted by Duncan’s discourse and the USDOE’s policies. Obama tended to state that teachers were the most important in-school influence on student learning while Duncan tends to continue omitting the “in-school” qualifier, but these nuances of language are of little value since the USDOE under Obama has an agenda nearly indistinguishable from Republican agendas:

  • Incentivizing all states to adopt CC and the necessary increase in testing and textbook support (and thus, profit) to follow.
  • Endorsing market dynamics and school choice by embracing the charter school movement, specifically charters such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that practice “no excuses” ideologies for school reform and school cultures.
  • Criticizing directly and indirectly public school teachers and perpetuating the “bad” teacher myth by calling for changes in teacher evaluations and compensation, disproportionately based on student test scores.
  • Funding and endorsing the spread of test-based accountability to departments and colleges of education involved in teacher certification.
  • Funding and endorsing the de-professionalization of teaching through support for Teach for America.
  • Appealing to the populist message about choice by failing to confront the rise of “parent trigger” laws driven by corporate interests posing as concerned parents.

If my claim that Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same misguided education reform coin still appears to be the claim of an extremist, the last point above should be examined carefully.

Note, for example, the connection between the issues endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the anti-union sentiment joined with endorsing the next misleading Waiting for “Superman”Won’t Back Down.

The Democratic National Convention was home to DFER, Parent Revolution, and Students First to promote Won’t Back Down as if this garbled film is a documentary—including a platform for Michelle Rhee.

There is nothing progressive about the education reform agenda under the Obama administration, nothing progressive about the realities behind Obama’s or Duncan’s discourse, nothing progressive about Rhee, Gates, or the growing legions of celebrity education reformers.

If the Democratic Party were committed to a progressive education platform, we would hear and see policy seeking ways to fund fully public schools, rejecting market solutions to social problems, supporting the professionalization of teachers, embracing the power and necessity of collective bargaining and tenure, protecting students from the negative impact of testing and textbook corporations, distancing themselves from Rhee-like conservatives in progressive clothing, and championing above everything else democratic ideals.

Instead, the merging of the education agenda between Democrats and Republicans is Orwellian, but it real, as Ravitch warned early in Obama’s administration:

This rhetoric represented a remarkable turn of events. It showed how the politics of education had been transformed. . . .Slogans long advocated by policy wonks on the right had migrated to and been embraced by policy wonks on the left. When Democrat think tanks say their party should support accountability and school choice, while rebuffing the teachers’ unions, you can bet that something has fundamentally changed in the political scene. (p. 22)

Still today in 2015, educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators—and this is but one symptom of a larger disease killing the hope and promise of democracy in the U.S.

This tragic fact is the inevitable result of the historical call for teachers not to be political. Now that educators have no major party to support, the failure of that call is more palpable than ever.

Both the faux “not political” pose and playing the partisan political game fail educators, public education, and the democratic hope of the U.S.

Why I Won’t Vote, W.E.B. Dubois, The Nation, 20 October 1956

Race to Disgrace

A society is defined by what is tolerated and for whom—and by whom.

In a country with a moral center, or at least a moral free press, this story would be a scathing exposé, spurring public denunciation.

But in the U.S., it is a story about “polarizing methods and superior results”—a gutless mess of misinformation and “fair and balanced” journalism that includes this dispassionate reporting:

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break.

What is the common characteristic of students in punitive, test-prep “no excuses” charter schools, like the one above, all across the U.S.?

What is the common characteristic of the teachers found guilty in the Atlanta cheating scandal?

What is the common characteristic of the professional educators fired (and replaced by TFA recruits) after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?

The answer is the same as, What is the characteristic of who is disproportionately in U.S. prisons? Disproportionately arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes? Disproportionately disciplined in U.S. public and charter schools, expelled as early as pre-K?

The answer: The race to disgrace is black in the U.S.—a country without a moral center, without a moral free press.

No Excuses for Advocacy Masquerading as Research

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel

A rallying mantra of politicians, education reform advocates, and many charter schools is “no excuses”—a mask for an ideology steeped in classism and racism and targeting mostly black, brown, and poor children.

In the spirit of Commander Buck Murdock, we now have ample evidence that there should be no excuses for the pattern of advocacy masquerading as research used to justify “no excuses” charter schools.

First, let me remind everyone of a 2007 report on school choice from Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which promotes itself as Wisconsin’s free-market think tank.

Despite the study finding choice ineffective, George Lightbourn introduced the report as a Senior Fellow, admitting:

The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find. We had expected to find a wellspring of hope that increased parental involvement in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) would be the key ingredient in improving student performance.

And later on the WPRI web site (although no longer available online), Lightbourne emphasized:

So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice [emphasis added]. School choice is working and should be improved and expanded. School choice is good for Milwaukee ‘s children.

For many, if not most, school choice advocates, ideology trumps evidence.

In the more narrow commitment to charter schools as a market mechanism and then “no excuses” charter schools specifically, the evidence is overwhelming that not only think tanks but also university departments have relinquished academic freedom for masking advocacy as research.

The latest can be found in No Excuses Charter Schools: A Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence on Student Achievement from the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—founded and funded by the pro-choice Walton family.

In a review of the report, Jeanne M. Powers finds:

The working paper reviewed here seeks to assess the extent to which “No Excuses” charter schools raise student achievement in English language arts and math and thereby close the achievement gap. The paper defines such schools as having: a) high academic standards, b) strict disciplinary codes, c) extended instructional time, and d) targeted supports for low-performing students. From their meta-analysis of 10 quasi-experimental studies , the authors concluded students who attended No Excuses charter schools had average achievement gains of 0.16 standard deviations in English language arts and 0.25 in mathematics. While conceding that charter schools with lotteries and No Excuses charter schools are not representative of all charter schools, the authors did not address whether or how students who apply to lottery charter schools might not be representative of all charter school students. They also did not address the possible relevance of student attrition for the individual studies’ findings and their own analysis. As a result, the claim that No Excuses schools can close the achievement gap substantially overstates their findings. Moreover, the report’s relatively small sample of schools concentrated in Northeast Coast cities suggests the current research base is too limited to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of No Excuses charter schools.

This is not, however, an isolated situation, as I have documented, so I offer below the full record:

Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3

For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Criticizing KIPP Critics

When a “Visit” Trumps Expertise and Experience: A New Deal

The Rise of the Dogmatic Scholar: “A Cult of Ignorance” pt. 2

Beware Reports Claiming “No Excuses”

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

References

Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/

Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) fernandadepaulag@aol.com [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/

Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/

Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle

Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Valerie Strauss has raised a key problem with the education reform movement in the U.S.: The central experts in the education system, teachers, are essentially ignored.

I have a long history now of rejecting the charter school movement and the “no excuses” ideology that is driving many charter schools. Because of my position, I have been criticized for not visiting KIPP schools and I have detailed why that falls short against my central point about the racism and classism inherent in “no excuses” ideology.

So I want to offer a connection between my position on charters and “no excuses” with listening to a teacher.

I received an unsolicited email from a teacher who has recently taught in a “no excuses” charter school; this is the teacher’s central point:

Their system does not work. Their philosophy is to teach the kids over extended hours at school. We taught from 8:00-4:00 every day. The teachers have added responsibilities on top of those hours. Then most children went to after school care where they continued teaching and received dinner [1]. Guess what our report card score is? It’s an F.

The children were worn out all the time. The parents expected us to take care of the children no matter what. One day I had a parent not pick up their child and I was expected to stay at school until their parents came for their child. After calling every number I had, no one arrived to pick him up until 7:15 at night.

I have never seen such chaos in all my years of teaching.

Disillusioned, this teacher has moved to a different school, but I find the story and impressions hit on exactly what is wrong with “no excuses” ideologies: the unnecessarily harsh school environments for students and teachers, the remaining disconnect among all the stakeholders, and the inevitable negative consequences of relying on accountability metrics to determine if a school is successful or not.

If you still feel compelled not to listen to me, then at least listen to this teacher.

[1] Please consider this in the context of the teacher’s experience: A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

On Children and Childhood

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew

“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

In one of those early years of becoming and being a teacher, when I was still teaching in the exact room where I had been a student (a school building that would eventually be almost entirely destroyed by a fire set by children), it was the first day of school, and I was calling that first roll—a sort of silly but important ritual of schooling for teachers and students.

Toward the back of the room and slightly to my left sat a big young man, a white male student typical of this rural upstate South Carolina high school in my home town; like me, he would accurately be considered in that context as a Redneck.

Just about everyone knows everyone in my hometown, and we are very familiar with the common names of that town. So when I came to this young man’s name—Billy Laughter (it rhymes with “slaughter”)—I said “Billy Laughter” (rhyming the last name with “after”).

Smiling, I scanned the room and then turned my eyes back to Billy; he was red-faced and on the edge of having a very bad first day, one that was likely going to result in his being punished for my having done a very stupid thing. I raised my hand, palm facing him, and said, “Billy, my mistake. I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny but it wasn’t.” And then I said his name correctly.

Billy had suffered a life of people mangling his name, and he wasn’t in any mood for my being clever on the first day of school.

Several years later, when I was teaching a U.S. history class as part of  my usual load as a member and chair of the English department, while I was having students form small groups, two young white males bumped into each other, back to back, while moving their desks. I caught the moment out of the corner of my eye and had to rush over to deter the fight that was about to occur.

I wasn’t surprised—this was typical of my small community, along with fights starting because “he/she looked at me wrong”—but some time after this, I saw a research study that explained how people in the South and North handled personal space differently. In the South, bumping into someone or looking at someone wrong is often interpreted as challenging someone’s honor, requiring a response. People in the North, conditioned by mass transit and crowded cities (I suspect the study was as much about rural and urban, as South and North), are not as apt to find acts of close proximity anything other than that.

So setting aside the urge to examine the Redneck honor code, I want to add just one more event from my coaching life in those middle years of my teaching.

While running a drill at soccer practice, I heard a comment from a player in a group behind me. My mind heard a player with whom I had been having trouble. He was difficult in class and on the team, and worst of all, he was very disruptive at practice.

I turned and, without hesitating, I announced, “You are out of here,” pointing with my finger up the hill. Throwing him out of practice? No, I kicked him off the team.

As the young man was walking up that hill, a timid player on the team said, “Coach, that was me.”

I had just kicked a young man off the team who had, in fact, not said a thing.

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Alfie was apologetic about self-promotion so I replied, thanked him for the book, and noted a book I am co-editing that appears to be of a similar mind about children and childhood, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children.

I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, then, or more likely stewing about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children?

That, I must admit, is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,” “no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies.

I grew up and live in the South where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then, we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child.

That Christ’s love comes in the form of corporal punishment has never made any sort of sense to me, but I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective of children throughout the U.S.

Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

This is not the United States.

For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout ” Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

I just don’t get it.

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired (I won’t belabor, but the whole Original Sin idea doesn’t help and justifies the drive to use the rod).

But it is also certainly true that children are not angels, not pure creatures suited to be simply set free to find the world on their own.

Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

And within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Consider the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too….

The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are….

The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino/a students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

When I raise these questions, I can rest assured I will inspire the same sort of nasty response I often encounter when cycling. A few motorists make their anger known when we are riding our bicycles, and I am convinced that while some are genuinely frustrated with our blocking temporarily the road, the real reason they are angry is that we are enjoying ourselves as children do.

And nothing angers a bitter adult as much as the pleasures of a child.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Children are not flawed or wild, needing us neither to repair nor break them.

And children are not to be coddled or worshipped.

They are children, and they are all our children.

Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons.

Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves.

In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served, like Billy above. Those faces and names serve as my starting point: With any child, first do no harm.

The ends can never justify the means.

“Treating People with Fundamentally Unequal Backgrounds as Superficially the Same”

“Work hard. Be nice.” is the tag-line of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, schools that serve primarily (and often exclusively) high-poverty minority students.

These concepts for students are also central to enduring slogans in the U.S. aimed at workers. The Puritan work ethic is a pillar upon which capitalism is built, in fact.

As a cultural myth, however, that implores students and workers to work hard, “Work hard. Be nice.” proves to be almost all myth, a misleading myth, a deforming myth—one that serves the interests of the privileged and thus would be better phrased as “Work Hard (So We Don’t Have To).”

This sloganism must be placed in its historical and current contexts.

In the U.S., until the mid-1800s, Blacks were shackled and told to work hard and be quiet.

In the U.S., until the early-1900s, women* were told don’t work because this is men’s work.

In the U.S., at best, the sort of meritocracy possibility behind work hard wasn’t open to everyone until well into the twentieth century in fact.

In the U.S., as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the intersection of the meritocracy myth, the work hard ethic, and the promise of upward mobility reveals a pretty disturbing picture—one that refutes each of these refrains, one that calls into question building schools for high-poverty minority students on false promises.

What, then, do we know about the conditions of the worker in the U.S., meritocracy, and upward mobility—as well as the claim that education is the great equalizer, the one true path to equity and opportunity?

The U.S. Worker in the Era of Disaster Capitalism

Continuing to tell children that hard work is a valued quality is a calloused lie in an era of disaster capitalism. If the American worker ever was revered, that time has surely passed.

Being a worker in the U.S. is something to be endured, something to be avoided, something that is not nearly as respected as being rich.

And the great irony, of course, is “most Americans will always be workers”:

and to be a worker should be an honorable thing worthy of poetic speeches and artistic black-and-white film tributes. Being an American worker doesn’t need to be a condition tolerated on the way to something better, and it shouldn’t be twenty-first century wage-slavery that is a reality echoed in the allegory of SF: “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” As the last paragraphs of Cloud Atlas express, however, the wage-slavery of workers in the context of assembly-line and disaster capitalism is a condition Americans have chosen (or at least been conditioned to choose), but it is also a condition workers can change—if workers believe it is wrong, “such a world will come to pass.” (Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?, p. 22)

Work hard, then, succeeds as a demand from those in power and for those in power because it asks children and adults to plow forward, heads down. If students or workers ever pause to look up, the evidence before them discredits the value in slogans like “Work hard. Be nice.”

Meritocracy as a Promise that Blinds

It is no accident that when Martin Luther King Jr. is honored each year in the U.S., his most referenced words are “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

MLK serves the privileged elite in the U.S. only as he can be reduced to the meritocracy myth. MLK serves the privileged elite as long as the gaze remains on individuals and how hard he tries or how hard she tries.

And thus, the meritocracy myth is not a tool of seeking equity in a free society, but a deforming myth, because:

Meritocracy, defined as a system that rewards according to ability or achievement and not birth or privilege, may be unfair precisely because it is blind to differences of class, wealth and social status.

As Kenneth Paul Tan explains:

Meritocracy, in trying to “isolate” merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.

In “no excuses” schools such as KIPP—reinforced by slogans such as “Work hard. Be nice.”—the same ideology found in the meritocracy myth exists: “treating [students] with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same.”

Word hard because that work will be rewarded despite who you are is a compelling narrative, but it also a promise that blinds, a promise that pretends systemic inequity no longer exists, no longer matters.

Upward Mobility? No. Birth Lottery? Yes.

“Contrary to the mantra commonly touted by campaigning politicians,” reports Andy Warner, “few Americans born into poverty ever get to experience the iconic rise from ‘rags to riches.'”

So what do we know about upward mobility, the hope that working hard matters more than the accident of anyone’s birth?

Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. [summary][paper] Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries. [summary][paper] (The Equality of Opportunity Project)

The last point above is really important because if people in the U.S. want access to meritocracy and upward mobility, they would be better off in another country.

Also, while income gaps have increased in the U.S., the report concludes:

Contrary to the popular perception, we find that percentile rank-based measures of intergenerational mobility have remained extremely stable for the 1971-1993 birth cohorts. For example, the probability that a child reaches the top fifth of the income distribution given parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution is 8.4% for children born in 1971, compared with 9.0% for those born in 1986. Children born to the highest-income families in 1984 were 74.5 percentage points more likely to attend college than those from the lowest-income families. The corresponding gap for children born in 1993 is 69.2 percentage points, suggesting that if anything mobility may have increased slightly in recent cohorts.

Upward mobility, then, has a fairly long history of being a misleading promise, and as noted above, a masking narrative like meritocracy. A more accurate narrative is the “birth lottery”:

Although rank-based measures of mobility remained stable, income inequality increased substantially over the period we study. Hence, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past. A useful visual analogy…is to envision the income distribution as a ladder, with each percentile representing a different rung. The rungs of the ladder have grown further apart (inequality has increased), but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher rungs have not changed (rank-based mobility has remained stable).

In fact the “birth lottery” remains more powerful than working hard to attend and complete college, as Matt Bruenig explains when answering What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich?:

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

Hard work should matter, and all societies should work toward a meritocracy. But offering meritocracy, hard work, and upward mobility as contracts, instead of goals requiring collective activism, serves only the interests of the privileged—and certainly further erodes the promise of education and the status of the worker.

For high-poverty minority students, especially African American males, “Work hard. Be nice.” rings hollow against a shrinking labor market (even for college graduates), the ballooning debt associated with attending college, the inequity of discipline policies in schools, and the entrenched mass incarceration disproportionately impacting AA young men.

As long as those inequities remain, a slogan such as “Work hard. Be nice.” is insidious soma, a narcotic, the opium of the passive student as passive worker-to-be.

Instead of vapid sloganism, all students but especially students living poverty and minority students are better served by the words of James Baldwin:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.  That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.

* I was urged by a reader to note that the history of woman and work is impacted by race. African American women as workers have a history impacted by race and gender that is often ignored and is unique from white women’s (see, for example, Stay-at-home motherhood not an option for most black women). As well, women have varied and complex histories related to work that include unpaid domestic labor. My rhetorical strategies in this piece were not intended to trivialize, overgeneralize, or ignore any of these complex and important issues.