A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“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 [their] 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 . . . 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, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

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.

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Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

Draconian: of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in the public high school I had attended. The town and schools were the sort of traditional Southern environments that probably would seem to be caricature or even satire to someone not from the mid- to late twentieth century South.

I had been a very successful student at the school, graduating eighth in my class, but except for a few wonderful and life-changing teachers, I had found school to be mostly something to endure, especially high school as I became more and more recalcitrant.

When I began teaching there, several administrators and many teachers remained from my time as a student; while the traditional norms of the town and school endured—the greatest sources of my discomfort, having realized I was almost entirely unlike what was considered normal—I discovered as a teacher that I simply could not comply with the authoritarian disciplinary codes of the school.

We used a demerit system, and eventually adopted both in-school suspension and an after-school homework detention. Many of the demerit guidelines were automatic penalties—for chewing gum or eating in class, being late, and any restroom visit during class time.

Teachers monitored their doorways and the halls during class changes, and were themselves monitored by administrators for compliance with these rules.

Over nearly two decades, then, these authoritarian (and ridiculous in my view) policies were the source of my constantly being reprimanded for not enforcing the rules. Late students entered my class, usually without disturbance, and took their seats; students also with almost no disruption ate occasionally in class (although one group of students began to organize bringing snacks for their groups and had something nearly akin to a picnic many days during writing workshop).

But the most egregious flaunting of the rules in my classes was my approach to students going to the restroom.

In a school where the principal had his own private restroom in his office, going to the restroom was a manufactured and persistent source of anxiety for students (and even teachers who had very little personal time during the day).

Thus, I never turned students in, but I also created a process in which I had permanent passes on my desk that students simply took before excusing themselves to the restroom—all of which occurred without them having to ask, resembling what some of us may associate with simply leaving class while in college.

Early in my career, part of this commitment to the dignity of my students was grounded in the very real and very publicly difficult process adolescent women face during their periods. No one, I decided, should ever have to fret over going to the restroom, regardless of the need, but my female students were among the ones most appreciative of being able to attend to their needs without question or public announcements.

In fact, my female students began keeping a supply of tampons in my desk; there were times students I had never taught would swing by my room and simply ask to have access to my desk.

This is what I am most proud of about my 18 years teaching high school: I was not perfect, and I certainly can confess to many mistakes, but on balance, students recognized that my room was mostly theirs and it also was mostly a safe haven for their ideas, their words, their genuine selves, and their human dignity.

I must add here that what I am most ashamed of during those years are the times I failed that commitment. I believe I can name all of them, all of the students involved, and I deeply regret my failures.

This came rushing back to me as I have been reading reactions to the “no excuses” unmasking of Noble Network of Charter Schools—the most disturbing example being:

One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods.

“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.”

At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code.

Maybe because of my own discomfort as a student, maybe because my years teaching high school confirmed for me that the human dignity of students trumps everything else—everything else—I have been an early and persistent critic of “no excuses” ideologies, prominent in the charter school movement and championed by KIPP.

Because I have been a critic, I have been publicly attacked and falsely demonized in print by “no excuses” advocates and apologists who steadfastly deny the exact problems exposed in the coverage of Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Now, there may seem to be little to compare except for the poverty between student populations in my hometown, mostly white working-class and poor, and the majority-minority students served by “no excuses” charter schools. But I think we should all consider how authoritarian discipline (“no excuses,” zero tolerance, resource officers, metal detectors, suspension/expulsion) are disproportionately implemented with black, brown, and poor students.

At the core of this dynamic is a belief that some children are naturally defective, needing to be corrected, or because of cultural and racial stereotypes, that some children are reared to be defective, also needing to be corrected.

Affluent and mostly white students at elite private schools are exempt from being subjected to “no excuses” ideologies for a reason.

One of my favorite words has always been “draconian” because it fits into that small camp of words that sound like their meaning (“awkward” is among the greatest of these because what is more awkward to English speakers than “wkw”).

Draconian schooling, like draconian parenting, are among the most vile behaviors by adults. Authoritarian adults are petty humans, and their lust for power over those already weaker than them is a reflection on their own pettiness, their own insecurities.

On balance, there is no excuse for “no excuses” practices at any schools, but that is even more significant for our vulnerable students, the ones made vulnerable because of the poverty in their homes and communities, the ones made vulnerable because of the lingering inequities of this country (and the powerlessness of schools to change that), the ones made vulnerable by their sex or gender.

Noble Network of Charter Schools are not outliers; they are a harbinger of everything that is wrong with the charter school movement as well as our failure to create schools—public, charter, or private—that at their core protect the human dignity of all students.

Noble Network of Charter Schools is a real-life allegory confirming a central theme found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which warns through Offred how authoritarian practices create violent fantasies and behaviors; as one Noble teacher explains: “‘One student says it best,“When you treat us like animals, what do you think we are gonna act like?”’”

There is nothing noble about “no excuses” for our children and teens when the adults behind those practices are themselves above the moral and ethical standards they claim to be demanding of students.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, some context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

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

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

The differences are striking….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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


For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

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

Please Support #FixInjusticeNotKids

Paul Gorski, currently preparing a revised edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, has initiated #FixInjusticeNotKids on social media, a hashtag that captures perfectly the primary fracture between mainstream education reformers and social justice education reformers.

As some examples, here are Tweets of mine addressing this powerful message:

Many elements of mainstream reform embrace a deficit view of children and students, specifically black and brown students as well as students living in poverty. This ideology blames the victims of social inequity, racism, classism, and sexism; it creates a laser focus on the individual and blinds us to systemic injustice.

Support #FixInjusticeNotKids in word and action to seek ways to reject deficit ideology and to end inequity and injustice so that the potential of all children can be achieved among a people who genuinely believe all children matter,

Hiding Behind Rhetoric in the Absence of Evidence

Having been extensively cited in recent news articles on education, I have received the typical responses, both by email and an Op-Ed (High expectations lead to achievement).

What is notable about these disgruntled responses can be seen directly in the headline above—a dependence on soaring and idealistic rhetoric to mask a complete failure to either discount my evidence or to provide any credible evidence for the counter arguments.

A recent email argued that I was causing more harm than good for emphasizing the impact of racism on literacy education and achievement by students; the rebuttal, however, was peppered with “I believe” and not a single effort to rebut the dozens of research studies I provided on both grade retention and racism/sexism.

While I pressed that point in a few replies, the offended person only ever produced as some sort of evidence a TED Talk, an unintended confession that his world-view depends on whiz-bang showmanship and seeing in any outlier example a confirmation of his biases—what Maia Szalavitz identifies as “’fundamental attribution error’. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.”

The emails were almost entirely rhetorical, like a TED Talk, and then divorced from any sort of empirical evidence.

The Op-Ed reflects in a more public way this same disturbing pattern. William W. Brown, founder and chairman of the board of Legacy Early College, holds forth in defense of the charter school’s “no excuses” approach to educating poor and mostly black/brown students, an ideology and set of policies that I have rejected for many years as inherently racist and classist.

While Brown quotes a few of my comments from a news article and then suggests he aims to rebut them, he merely slips each time into restating the ideology of the charter school, the rhetoric of high expectations.

Early in the commentary, Brown notes: “However, Thomas does not acknowledge that a college education is the single most reliable way to lessen the effect of systemic racism and end poverty.”

Here is the exact strategy employed by Arne Duncan throughout his tenure as Secretary of Education: make a grand rhetorical claim that most people in the U.S. believe (education is the “great equalizer”), and then offer no evidence it is true while hoping no one calls you on it.

The truth is hard to swallow, however, because education can be shown through ample evidence to have very little impact on erasing inequity driven by racism and sexism. For just a few of many examples, please consider the following:

Whites with only high school completion earn more than Blacks/Hispanics having completed 2 years of college. (Bruenig, 24 October 2014)

White men with no high school diploma have the same employment opportunities as black men with some college completion. (Closing the Race Gap)

Race and gender remain powerful sources of inequity despite educational attainment. (Access to good jobs)

Brown also cites this: “He goes on to say, ‘Successful people in the United States tend to be white and come from privilege and they’re not necessarily working harder than anybody else but they have incredible advantages.'”

And then makes no effort to address why he believes my comment is “problematic.” Perhaps he could consider the following:

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality. (Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun)

One other tactic I experience is the subtle and not-so-subtle effort by the “no excuses” crowd to turn charges of racism toward those of us calling out the racism of “no excuses” practices: “If you believe the zip code where you were born should determine your educational outcome, you basically believe that some people aren’t built for success, which is — to put it bluntly — racist.”

Two aspects of this strategy are important to highlight. First, Brown here and others must misrepresent my claims (I have never and would never embrace or suggest that we ask less of any child or that some group of people have less ability than others because of inherent deficiencies; in fact, my scholarship and public work directly reject deficit ideologies).

Second, this rhetorical slight of hand is designed to point anywhere other than the person making the claim.

This second part of the move is important for charter advocates and the “no excuses” crowd because evidence is not on their side.

The Legacy Charter school endorsed by Brown has three consecutive years of “below average” state report cards (2012-2014, the most recent since report card assessments have been suspended in SC until this coming fall).

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

The “high expectations” movement, again mostly aimed at black/brown and poor children, has some serious flaws because the rhetoric is discredited by the evidence.

In short, education is not the “great equalizer” in the U.S. And committing to “high expectations” for children living inequitable and overburdened lives suggests their struggles are mostly their fault because they simply are not working hard enough.

That is a calloused and racist/classist lie.

As I detailed above, success in the U.S. is mostly about advantages, not working hard.

Brown concludes with a flurry of rhetoric: “You could burn the world down as it is because it’s too hard to fix systemic injustices, or you could build it up to the sky because you know in your heart that’s where we belong. Keep your matches. I’m grabbing a hammer and a ladder.”

What should disturb us is how easily the winners (even those claiming good intentions) in the U.S. are willing to throw up their hands when challenged to address systemic racism, classism, and sexism.

In fact, this admission is awash in excuses and absent the exact resilience needed to address inequity that these adults demand of children, who must somehow set aside their lives each day they walk through the doors of school and behave in ways the adults refuse to do.