On Public Debate, Naming the Enemy, and White Privilege: “a most disagreeable mirror”

Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.

How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?

But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).

And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.

For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.

Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.

Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.

Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.

However, recently Andre Perry and Angela Dye have also used the label “anti-reform” and then I came across this Tweet:

Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.

Thinnes has also commented further (here and here), reaching a powerful and important conclusion:

Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.

For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.

Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.

Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.

Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.

In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:

I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.

It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.

Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.

“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.

Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.

From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.

The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.

See Also

Why Liberals Separate Race from Class

On Public Versus Charter: “The Dispute Has Actually Nothing to Do with Education”

I.

Published 54 years ago, Nobody Knows My Name continues to shake any reader willing to listen as James Baldwin bore witness to the region currently—and again, shamefully—in the national spotlight, “the South, which was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people.”

Baldwin continued—and we could too easily substitute for his “this” as we now witness debates long past their time for resolution:

This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.) Educated people, of any color, are so extremely rare that it is unquestionably one of the first tasks of a nation to open all of its schools to all of its citizens. But the dispute has actually nothing to do with education, as some among the eminently uneducated know. It has to do with political power and it has to do with sex. And this is a nation which, most unluckily, knows very little about either. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1102-1108). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

The “frivolous” comes not from the great questions that have always and will always confront humanity—how do we educate?—but from the “bad faith” among “uneducated people” who have undeserved privilege and power.

To believe the current education reform debate is not nearly indistinguishable from what Baldwin contested as the U.S. resisted desegregation is to live among the deaf and blind.

For more than three decades now, public education has been held hostage by the most frivolous of frivolous debates: how to design and implement accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing. This adolescent game of “my accountability can beat your accountability” has left public education and the children it should serve battered and bloodied.

From the seemingly endless cycle of new standards and new high-stakes tests (and ways to punish even more groups within our public schools) to the increasingly snarky divisiveness and personal politics of social media, the often cited reasons for all this sound and fury—public schools, the children—are being mis-served; just as a couple terrible examples, public education has re-segregated during the accountability era, and the mislabeled achievement gap among racial groups has remained robust.

II.

“I often find myself scratching my head,” writes Andre Perry, “wondering why so many black folk extol the virtues of public education.”

Perry, 54 years after Baldwin’s challenge to “frivolous dispute,” wades into not only the public versus charter schools debate but also the race and social class biases at the root of whose voices matter and whose voices do not.

Most of the U.S. sits idly by—like audiences watching the newest Avengers movie—while the arrogant and mighty battle, rarely acknowledging the collateral damage (will there ever be a superhero blockbuster film in which all those superheroes use their superpowers to rebuild the infrastructure they destroy?).

Since Marvel’s Civil War is set for film soon, we may be watching the equivalent in fiction of the public versus charter debate, and I think Perry is offering a rare but important plea, as Baldwin did: “the dispute has actually nothing to do with education.”

Perry recognizes “[i]n the education wars,”

black and brown educators who criticize the current wave of reform often find themselves rallying with those who can say that public education in this country works. But let’s be clear, blacks aren’t in a position to root for or celebrate the status quo. Likewise, there has never been a time in which blacks shouldn’t have considered themselves reformers. Yet many have incidentally joined an education “party of no.”

Although eventually (as late as the early 1970s in the South Baldwin examined) public schools were forced to open their doors to all children, Perry stresses “many of us fight for that unfulfilled promise at the expense of student learning”:

Public education should advance society and its individual members simultaneously. But black communities can’t afford to wait for whites to gentrify schools in the name of democracy to get a good education.

And thus, Perry challenges the false dichotomy that has been created by the “education reform [debate that] is too white to do any good“: public schools versus charter schools. In fact, Perry asserts, guided by Frederick Douglass’s “What To The Slave Is The 4th of July?”:

Charter schools make sense for black communities. Charter schools are independent public institutions that are freed from administrative controls of a centralized, area board, but must still meet broad guidelines or requirements of public schools. Through a charter, parents, teachers, and administrative staff primarily can gain freedom from an elected local board that’s incongruent with their values.

To fight the public versus charter war at a pitch that drowns out the voices of those whom “public institutions” should be serving, must be serving is disturbingly frivolous, Perry recognizes.

Of all the education reform debates, this tension has given me the most pause: How can we rectify rejecting “no excuses” charter schools for being racist/classist while many black families choose those very schools?

I am compelled to look again to Baldwin in order to remove the misleading labels (“public,” “charter”) and to hear, as Perry explains:

I like many see a promise that charter schools can deliver, but I also see inequities waving in the faces of black and brown students every day in public schools. Inadequate funding, harsh suspension and expulsion policies, lack of services for students with special needs and culturally irrelevant curricula are durable, standing problems in most takeover districts. I see waste, fraud, and unsavory practices that led cities to decentralize.

“Charter” for Perry represents a new promise, one responsive to the needs of children too long ignored.

So to save this debate from the “frivolous” we must guard against simplistic labels. Regardless of whether the school is “public” or “charter,” the educator’s commitment must be, as Paul Gorski explains, to “take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income[, black and brown] students and families.”

Being for public education or either for or against charter schools proves to be as callous and hollow as superheroes destroying a city to win a war between Good and Evil when we lose sight of foundational promises to achieve race and class equity.

III.

In the years between Baldwin’s and Perry’s commentaries, the promise of public institutions has remained unfulfilled because the question of race in the U.S. has never been fully confronted.

In 2015, presidential candidates expressing racist trash are viable while elected officials, although now in a minority, in South Carolina continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag as they spew whitewashed history and empty slogans as thin veils for racism that works as political capital. In 2015, because a privileged minority controls what counts as civil debate, we haven’t the capacity to denounce the morally reprehensible position that “both sides” deserve equal credibility.

So we are people trapped by trivializing debate and democracy in a moral vacuum.

And again, Baldwin’s “debate” allows us to insert his voice in our moment now:

And yet, it became clear as the debate wore on, that there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimiliar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 346-351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

From Baldwin’s world of overt racial segregation to Perry’s world of covert racial segregation, then, whether the debate be who we educate or how we educate, the tarnished promise is the consequence of the white illusion:

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1080-1085). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

IV.

We need “educated people,” as Baldwin explained—not the credentialism of formal schooling, but the education that comes from Freire’s reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world unmasked of race and class privilege.

Educated people who can state clearly that no black child should have to sit in Robert E. Lee Elementary.

That no black young adult should have to sit in Tillman Hall.

Yes, names matter.

But then, the indignity of honoring “men with wicked histories” must not be compounded by what happens inside those institutions.

No black, brown, or poor child should be walking through the doors of any school only to be treated as criminals, failures, or data.

We need educated people who can admit public, charter, and private schools remain too often institutions of inequity reflecting a country in which a child’s race and social class at birth have a greater bearing on her/his life than the content of her/his character.

We need educated people who can admit symbolism and practices both matter—that two Americas will not be tolerated or obscured by “frivolous dispute[s … that have] nothing to do with education.”

On this there must no longer be debate.

We Can, and We Must

I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert)

Pamela Cantor offers her medical perspective to the education reform debate that tends to focus on high-poverty schools disproportionately serving  black and brown children:

The argument that says we can’t fix education until we fix poverty is a false one [1]. We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives, but we can “fix” the impact of stress on the developing brain. In fact, we have to. We can and must teach schools and teachers how to do this now.

Lurking beneath the good intentions of this charge, however, is the false dichotomy of fatalism that is common among a wide range of education reformers.

For children living in poverty—a stressful and toxic life of unjust scarcity—this “we” has chosen simultaneously to concede that “we” can do nothing about poverty, racism, and inequity, but those impoverished children have been sentenced to both their lives of poverty and then formal education that replicates the stress of the lives (which “we” demand they set aside somehow just by walking through the doors of schools) through mantras of “no excuses,” manufactured lessons in “grit,” and race- and class-biased high-stakes testing that doubles down on stress and anxiety.

The false dichotomy of fatalism has built a world in which privileged adults with the power to tolerate this world or to change this world are afforded excuses (“We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives”), but powerless and impoverished children are dehumanized with the demand of “no excuses.”

“I have always rejected fatalism,” writes Paulo Freire:

I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing. The recently proclaimed death of history, which symbolizes the death of utopia, of our right to dream, reinforces without doubt the claims that imprison our freedom. This makes the struggle for the restoration of utopia all the more necessary. Educational practice itself, as an experience in humanization, must be impregnated with this ideal.

Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger confesses and embraces human resignation, the fatalism that the world happens to us, that a world in which we are alive or dead is no different, that a world of freedom or prison is simply something “we” get used to.

Margaret Atwood offers a more detailed and darkly disturbing vision in The Handmaid’s Tale and Offred/June, who has been shaped a different woman in her lives before and after the fall of the world “we” know and the brave new world of Gilead.

The world “we” have created is neither existential fiction nor speculative dystopian fiction; the world “we” have created is far more terrible.

“Why exactly was I sad?” asks Ta-Nehisi Coates in Letter to My Son, as he confronts a “failed” guest appearance on a news show:

I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

July 5, 2015, is in too many ways ample evidence not of celebration but disappointment, one grounded in the exact document of declaration that prompts annual flag waving each July in the United States of America.

As “we” rebelled from the British crown, “we” pronounced to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—excluding black humans shackled by slavery and those second-class humans, women.

Thomas Jefferson had faced slavery in the original draft of this declaration, but due to the pressure of Southern heritage and the Invisible Hand of the all-mighty market, “we” included only some men, despite the rhetoric otherwise.

More than 100 years passed before the rhetoric of law approached the apparent original intent of declaring independence, but the clock continues to tick as “we” throw up our hands when “we” don’t have them covering our eyes.

Coates above quotes James Baldwin because Coates recognizes in his own life as well as the life of his son that as Baldwin declared:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first part of the problem is how to control the rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.

“Indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country” is the fatalism “we” embody each time “we” claim nothing can be done about poverty, racism, or inequity—each time “we” ask more of children, the poor, the marginalized and dehumanized than of ourselves.

“We,” I regret, have chosen a resignation and paralysis that benefits the “we” “who believe that they are white,” as Coates channels Baldwin.

Freire believed, however, “we” can transform into we by “reject[ing] fatalism.”

We can, and we must.

[1] While I believe this first comment is a straw man argument (since many are calling for both equity-based reform of society and schools, and this smacks of implying some are using poverty as an excuse), Cantor should consider that Martin Luther King Jr. asserted: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

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.

=

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.

=

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.

=

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.

$$$

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

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