NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “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).

The great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality:

 

Advertisements

Dear New York Times

It is the end of the month, and as I click on what appear to be important articles in my social media feed, you, The New York Times, alert me that I have exhausted my free access to your news and commentary, including options for subscribing to your publication.

For a long time now, those messages have, frankly, irritated me because I have been blogging extensively as an educator about how your publication as a leader in mainstream media as well as other highly regarded outlets such as NPR and Education Week has been using my field of education as toilet paper.

Mainstream media consistently misrepresent the quality and problems with public education and teachers; routinely honor reform advocates, politicians, and organizations/think tanks with essentially no credibility; and remain trapped in vapid “both sides,” so-called objective, and press-release journalism.

Since I am just a blogger, only an 18-year veteran of public school teaching, and a current college professor and scholar of education, race, and poverty, I realize you really do not care about my informed positions, but since you are soliciting my money and my support, let me simply remind you here of some of my work highlighting your truly careless and harmful reporting:

However, I am not addressing this open letter to you, The New York Times, to rail yet again about your failures as a major aspect of the free press in the U.S.

For the first time, when you blocked access to an article and waved your subscription options before me, I paused because unlike NPR, you have done something that many are calling “bold,” but is actually what you should have always been doing: In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie, Dan Barry.

If I may be so bold, let me counter your solicitation of my patronage with a request of my own.

The New York Times, as major voice in a fading field, could you please acknowledge the failure of mainstream media, a failure far more damaging than fake news, and along with your commitment to name lies as “lies,” could you please take a foundational stand for moving mainstream media in the U.S. toward rejecting “fair and balanced” and then embrace the tenets of being a critical free press?

Again, as a lowly blogger/educator/scholar, I know my voice really doesn’t matter, but I have laid out this problem often:

I am very cautiously willing to crack open the door I have long ago closed about the failures of mainstream media, beholden to our consumer society, because of your willingness to do something that any ethical person would do—confront lies, especially from the highest levels of our society.

But as I detail above in a recent blog, about the same time you made your stance about lies, you published a truly awful and harmful article about people living in poverty and depending on government assistance.

It was a hate piece that feeds the very lowest stereotypes (hint: lies) about poor people as well as triggering racism; others as I link in my piece have shown that the article was both filled with gross stereotypes and factually misrepresented the study it cited.

So, thank you for pointing out Trump’s lies, but as I was admonished as a child, when you point a finger at someone, three are pointing back at you.

Will you simultaneously clean your own house, become a leader for your field in the pursuit of a critical free press, as you challenge the current administration?

If yes, I will eagerly open the door, and subscribe with glee.

See Also

Sam Waterston: The danger of Trump’s constant lying

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.


In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.


I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.


Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.


And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

Mainstream “Both Sides” Journalism Continues to Ignore Critical Third Way

In Beyond the viral video: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline, Elizabeth Green asserts about the controversy around a viral Success Academy video: “It’s complicated, more so than you might think,” adding:

Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera. Chief among those conditions: an educational philosophy known as “no excuses” that advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning.

What follows is a long and detailed examination of “no excuses” approaches to education reform, but Green’s analysis is also yet another example of how mainstream “both sides” journalism continues to ignore a critical third way.

Before examining Green’s challenge to “no excuses,” let me offer some context.

Because of high-profile incidences connected with NFL players, public debates about domestic violence toward women and corporal punishment have played out in the mainstream media.

While both topics are important, here I want to stress how mainstream media covered the two topics.

Domestic violence toward women was universally condemned without creating panels or “both sides” debates—although some in the U.S. and throughout the world still hold to men using physical force against women, often citing religious texts to justify their behaviors.

However, corporal punishment received the “both sides treatment”; those advocating for corporal punishment were treated as credible and allowed to argue, again often on religious grounds, for spanking children.

What is key about these differences is that the medical profession is solid in its rejecting corporal punishment. In short, advocating for corporal punishment is not in any way a credible stance—yet the mainstream press treated it as such.

The media took an informed stance against domestic violence, but deferred to “both sides” journalism for corporal punishment. We need far more of the former, and far less of the latter.

I have participated in a similar situation with mainstream media coverage of education policy concerning grade retention. Even though the research is strongly against grade retention, the media tends to lead with advocates of grade retention, directly and indirectly making that stance credible, and then giving a slight nod to “critics” of grade retention—marginalizing the only warranted position.

So let me return here to Green’s very well developed and ambitious work on “no excuses.” And let me emphasize once again—without any snark here—that Green’s work is high-quality mainstream journalism, and she is a very good journalist with good intentions—but that is the problem.

First, what constitutes “complicated” in mainstream journalism?

Green reduces the controversy over discipline and “no excuses” practices to two sides (which really isn’t even complicated as it is the standard approach to nearly all topics in journalism [see corporal punishment]), and then builds to three reasons to abandon and three reasons not to abandon “no excuses.”

This template and her premise about “complicated” highlight why mainstream journalism is doomed to reinforcing social inequity because of the practices that are embraced for the pursuit of objectivity and balance.

The great irony is that the “both sides” approach is a veneer of objectivity, but isn’t objective or informed at all.

Green follows a similar pattern I have examined about NPR’s coverage of “grit”: start with a perspective that is not credible, but by opening with it, making it the default “right” position; and then framing the more credible position as the “critics.”

Even as a confrontation of many of the problems with “no excuses,” Green maintains “no excuses” approaches can be reformed, and then by grounding her polar three reasons to abandon/not to abandon in “no excuses,” she effectively builds to an endorsement of “no excuses.”

This “both sides” tactic of very professional journalism always fails a third critical way; in this case, what is ignored is that both traditional public schools (TPS) and “no excuses” charter schools (NECS) mistreat and shortchange high-poverty children of color—TPS have done this historically and NECS have simply intensified the very worst of those TPS failures.

In short, “no excuses” practices are essentially inexcusable, and cannot be reformed. But that doesn’t mean tossing up our hands and simply ignoring the failures of traditional public schools.

“No excuses” practices and narratives must be entirely rejected for the following reasons:

  • The slogan itself is nasty and misleading since it implies anyone who highlights the impact of poverty on school/teacher quality and measurable student achievement is making an “excuse.” While those people may exist, the vast majority of education activists concerned with poverty are calling for alleviating the impact of poverty on the lives of children so that education reform can work.
  • “No excuses” focuses all the “blame” for learning on the child—directly stating that children must simply set aside their lives when they walk in the doors of schools and suck it up. This is a calloused and ugly thing to say to a child—and something that most adults themselves do not do. Many who advocate for “grit” in children are living in privilege and casting their privilege as “grit.” “No excuses” speaks to and reinforces the rugged individualism ideology in the U.S. that refuses to acknowledge or address systemic inequity (an ideology voiced by the privileged and one that benefits mostly those in privilege).
  • “No excuses” practices all are grounded in deficit views of children and education: The children from poverty or so-called minority races and the teachers/schools dealing with those children are deficient and must be “fixed.” However, a strong body of research suggests that individual behavior is often a reflection of the context; people living in scarcity behave differently than people living in slack. Affluent children have high test scores as a result of their lives in slack; impoverished children have low test scores as a result of their lives in scarcity. The problem is how to insure all children the slack they deserve—not how to harden children doomed to scarcity. TPS and NECS are both complicit in failing that directive.
  • “No excuses” feeds and builds on racism and classism—the exact racism and classism that have plagued traditional public schools and the U.S. for decades. Segregated schools, tracked class assignments, inequitable teacher assignments, inequitable and harsh discipline policies, and a misguided emphasis on high-stakes testing (itself race/class/gender biased)—these are the failures of both traditional public schools and “no excuses” charter schools.

The critical third way is about admitting social inequity in the U.S.—inequity grounded in racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—and admitting as well that our institutions mostly reflect that inequity, including out public schools and the so-called reform approaches such as “no excuses” charters.

“No excuses” practices cannot be reformed because they are essentially exaggerated versions of the greatest failures of the public school system they are designed to reform.

The critical third way is about social and educational equity, seeking schools that serve the most vulnerable students first with the opportunities that affluent children have (small classes, experienced teachers, challenging curriculum, supportive discipline, safe and well funded facilities).

The critical third way is about admitting we have broken systems, not broken children.

“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

figure-1

Cashing in on Journalism’s Neutral Pose

As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:

Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:

Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:

Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.

This is no surprise to me.

What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.

[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]

So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:

The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.

The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:

This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.

Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:

Freire neutral

 

As poet Adrienne Rich [1] has confronted:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.

For Further Reading

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

[1] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.