Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

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The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

Man Prefers Comic Books That Don’t Insert Politics Into Stories About Government-Engineered Agents Of War (The Onion) includes a simple picture of a 31-year-old white male with the hint of a soon-to-be Van Dyke:

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

“I’m tired of simply trying to enjoy escapist stories in which people are tortured and experimented upon at black sites run by authoritarian governments, only to have the creators cram political messages down my throat,” said Land, 31, who added that Marvel’s recent additions of female, LGBTQ, and racially diverse characters to long-running story arcs about tyrannical regimes turning social outsiders into powerful killing machines felt like PC propaganda run amok. “Look, I get that politics is some people’s thing, but I just want to read good stories about people whose position outside society makes them easy prey for tests run by amoral government scientists—without a heavy-handed allegory for the Tuskegee Study thrown in. Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?”

The satire here is the whitesplaining/mansplaining inherent in the politics of calling for no politics.

It strains the imagination only slightly to understand how this commentary on comic book fanboys also parallels the persistent combination in education of calling for no politics while using policy and a narrow definition of data and evidence to mask the racial and gender politics of formal schooling.

Let’s imagine, then, instead of the fictional Land an image of David Coleman (who parlayed his Common Core boondoggle into a cushy tenure as the head of the College Board) or John Hattie (he of the “poverty and class size do not matter” cults that provide Hattie with a gravy train as guru-consultant).

A close reading of David Coleman’s mug shot reveals a whole lot of smug.

In his “visible learning” hustle, John Hattie likely prefers to keep his enormous profits invisible.

Coleman and Hattie as technocrats feed the systemic racism, classism, and sexism in formal education policy and practice by striking and perpetuating an objective pose that serves as a veneer for the normalized politics of political and economic elites in the U.S.

As Daniel E. Ferguson examines, Coleman’s Common Core propaganda, the rebranded traditional mis-use of New Criticism into “close reading,” argues:

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

However, Ferguson adds,

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

And thus, close reading serves the cult of efficiency found in the high-stakes standardized testing industry that depends on the allure of believing all texts have singular meanings that can be assessed in multiple-choice formats—a dymanic Ferguson unmasks: “The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from.”

Simultaneously, of course, keeping students and teachers laser-focused on text only detracts them from the richer context of Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader implications of racism and classism informed by and informing King’s radical agenda.

Simply stated, close reading is a political agenda embedded in the discourse of objectivity that whitewashes King and denies voice and agency to King, teachers, and students.

Concurrently, Hattie’s catch phrase, “visible learning,” serves the same political agenda: Nothing matters unless we can observe and quantify it (of course, conveniently omitting that this act itself determines what is allowed to be seen—not the impact of poverty or the consequences of inequity, of course).

Hattie’s garbled research and data [1] match the recent efforts in education reform to isolate student learning as the value added (VAM) by individual teachers, yet another off-spring of the cult of efficiency manifested in high-stakes standardized testing.

Just as many have debunked the soundness of Hattie’s data and statistics, the VAM experiment has almost entirely failed to produce the outcomes it promised (see the school choice movement, the charter school movement, the standards movement, etc.).

Coleman and Hattie work to control what counts and what matters—the ultimate in politics—and thus are welcomed resources for those benefitting from inequity and wishing to keep everyone’s gaze on anything except that inequity.

The misogyny and racism among comic book fanboys allows the sort of political ignorance reflected in The Onion‘s satire.  If we remain “within the four corners of the text” of Marvel’s Captain America, for example, we are ignoring that, as I have examined, “Captain America has always been a fascist. … But … Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.”

The politics of education policy seeks to point the accusatory finger at other people’s politics, and that politics of policy is served by the technocrats, such as Coleman and Hattie, who feed and are fed by the lie of objectivity, the lie of no politics.


[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:

The Vulgar Academic Pose of President Trump

Criticism of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and then president has been intense among university-based academics and scholars across the U.S.

However, the great irony of that fact lies in how President Trump’s “both sides” approach to addressing the Charlottesville, VA, violence is merely a vulgar version of the academic pose found among those academics and scholars—the traditional call for professors and researchers to be politically neutral and objective.


second coming yeats


Having been a public school teacher for almost two decades in the rural South and now a university professor for 15 years and counting, I have lived the tyranny daily of being chastised as “too political,” as tarnishing my credibility as a teacher and professor by my writing-as-activism.

I stumbled through a bit more than a decade of teaching before I discovered an organized body of thought that defined for me what I had been practicing, although quite badly—critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy acknowledges two powerful and seemingly contradictory realities: (1) all human behavior, including teaching, is inherently political, and thus, the neutral/objective pose is itself a political stance, and (2) indoctrination must be avoided and rejected.


crit ped kincheloe


K-12 public education and higher education remain resistant to these concepts, continuing to demand apolitical teaching (or, actually, the appearance of apolitical teaching) and to bristle at teachers and academics as activists.

In fact, teachers and professors take great risk to their careers when stepping beyond the neutral/objective pose, even outside the walls of the classrooms where they teach.

That the norm of formal education remains entrenched in the same sort of “both sides” mentality shared by mainstream journalism is made more disturbing by the dishonesty of that expectation because educators at all levels of schooling do in fact take stances.

For example, history taught through a patriotic lens is a political choice that is allowed to appear neutral, although it is clearly not.

And there are topics, such as the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, that are taught with a clear moral imperative—no “both sides” false equivalence afforded those who believed in exterminating the Jews.

No classes ever treating as equal “both sides” of pedophilia, child abuse, misogyny, rape.

None the less, activist-academics such as Howard Zinn have been and continue to be marginalized as merely activists.


neutral zinn


Particularly in higher education, many go about their work as if the real world does not exist, and thus, the ivory tower myth and scathing phrases such as “merely academic.”

But to borrow Zinn’s metaphor, to remain in a neutral/objective pose in the classroom as an inequitable and unjust world charges on is to endorse that inequity and injustice.

President Trump’s “both sides” pose in the face of white nationalism and emboldened racism is inexcusable, but to pretend that Trump somehow sprang out of thin air is an ugly lie, a delusion.

The rise of Trumplandia confirms there is blood on the hands of neutral academics and scholars, just as there is blood on the hands of “both sides” mainstream journalists.


lady macbeth


Trump is capitalizing on a vulgar academic pose that must be refuted, but it is equally inexcusable that traditional academic neutrality remains entrenched as if it has no consequences beyond the walls of schools and universities.

The U.S. needs Trump’s vapid logic repudiated: Good causes will always have some flawed and even bad people, as well as bad decisions, but causes dedicated to hatred and racism never include good people.

If educators, academics, and scholars are somehow excluded from taking ethical stands, we have little room to point fingers at Trump and his reign of white nationalism.


See Also

white folk (switchblade)

Thought Experiment: Racism and Republican Politics in the South

Consider this comment from a Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, framed as “Telling insight as to what an R gov candidate thinks she need to say in a SC primary, circa 2017” by the NYT’s Jonathan Martin:

Now let’s place that in context with an imagined but parallel statement from another country:

Nazi pride

Feel free to discuss.


See Also

South Carolina governor candidate Catherine Templeton’s ‘proud of the Confederacy’ remarks stir controversy

Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document

Florida Education Reform: “It’s a Trap”

In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.

Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.

Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:

Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.

Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.

Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”

Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.

Like all “miracle” claims, however, the Florida “miracle” must be confronted simply: “It’s a trap!”

The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.

Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.

Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”

Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.

For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.

So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.

Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:

  • Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school  choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
  • SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
  • Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
  • The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.

While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.

What If?: Even the Best Republicans or Democrats

When news broke about John McCain’s cancer, political leaders from both major parties weighed in with words of praise and support—even former president Obama.

But here is my first thought: McCain will receive world-class medical care without any real fear of financial ruin because of his health crisis, but this fact is because he is extremely wealthy (much of that accumulated while being a career politician), not because he is a veteran, not because he is an American.

When Al Franken spoke about his middle-class roots and his wife’s struggle to rise out of poverty, Democrats began to post and praise Franken as the Great Hope of the party.

But here are my first thoughts: Franken’s white nostalgia for the good old days erases the very harsh realities for blacks, who did not have the same hope and promises Franken’s family and his wife’s family did (similar to McCain’s current fortune). While the good old days noted by Franken did include some identifiable opportunities gone today, Franken’s and his wife’s stories are significantly buoyed by their white privilege (conveniently omitted in his oratory).

McCain and Franken, I believe, represent both the best each major party has to offer and everything that is wrong with political leaders in the U.S.

McCain has worked his entire political life as a Republican to maintain the inequities of class and race that now benefit him in a very public and tragic way. McCain, in fact, was to be a major piece of Republican efforts to dump people off health insurance and to reduce the tattered safety nets needed by children, the poor, the elderly, and his fellow veterans.

Franken is the classic white progressive Martin Luther King Jr. warned about during the Civil Rights era. He speaks to rugged individualism and glosses past race because both strategies bolster his political capital.

The public in the U.S. is left victim to a vapid and soulless political sparring match between Republicans and Democrats, although neither party really cares about providing for all Americans the sorts of essential promises that every person deserves.

As one volatile example, we remain trapped in the abortion debate—as if that debate is about abortion, which it isn’t.

Throughout the history of the U.S. wealthy women have always had access to safe abortions; and regardless of the law, wealthy women will always maintain access to reproductive rights, safe and world-class healthcare for them and their children.

Roe v. Wade was narrowly about abortion, but broadly about expanding to all women in the U.S. the same rights already afforded the wealthy—just as we are witnessing in McCain’s cancer challenge.

I struggle to have the sort of compassion for McCain and praise for Franken that others are expressing because, in context, these men are—even as the best of their parties—the problems, not the solutions, to a more equitable country.

What if each of these men extended their own great fortune, much not even earned, to all Americans simply for being human? What if both of these men had worked and would now work to insure that especially the most vulnerable among are extended the promise that their human dignity will be preserved against poverty, disaster, and failing health?

What if they admitted the American Dream has never yet been achieved, even in their narratives about the good old days? What if they honestly sought ways to make that dream a reality soon?

What if enough Americans stopped playing petty and self-defeating political games so that our leaders had no choice but to do the right thing?

Yes, what if?

The Hollow Nation

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

“The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for eleven years….Carers aren’t machines.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”

It has been almost seven months since a motorist struck a pack of cyclists I was riding with on Christmas Eve 2016, injuring four of us—two seriously and permanently.

The motorist was deemed at fault on the scene, but received only a $76 ticket, less than the monthly payments I am making on my remaining medical bills since the insurance claim for the accident has yet to be settled.

My own insurance has paid much of the cost, but I am required to repay those payments once I have a settlement. The orthopedist, as well, overcharged me during my fracture treatment, refunding that amount more than six months later.

Nine or ten insurance companies and multiple lawyers have been wrestling with this accident, and the other injured cyclists and I have received a barrage of bills and notices from the ER, the hospital, the ambulance service, and numerous doctors. One cyclist was airlifted from the scene, and since the motorist had minimum coverage, his portion of that insurance likely was erased immediately in that urgent care.

This recent Monday morning, my mother was found unconscious by my youngest nephew, her grandson. She had a stroke, requiring an ambulance to transport her to our local hospital that then had her airlifted to a larger hospital nearby for emergency surgery on the clot discovered in her brain.

She has been in neurological ICU, and now a regular hospital room since Monday—but soon she will be transferred again to a rehabilitation facility for 2-3 weeks.

My father has been quite unwell recently; therefore, we are guiding him around in a wheelchair, circling our own wagons because my mother’s stroke creates a new and terrifying reality: she was his caretaker, and the family now must seek ways to provide both of my parents care.

Working-class children of the 1940s and 1950s, my parents have only Social Security and Medicare to sustain them.

Our next steps are swamped by if and how well their insurance and social services cover the medical care and rehabilitation my mother needs, if and how well my father can receive the daily care she has been providing.

My accident and my mother’s stroke are not nearly as extreme as the terrors of the healthcare system in the U.S. that countless people suffer daily. But these “terrors” are not really about the healthcare.

The treatment my mother has received, the seemingly miraculous surgery, has been the sort of kind and skilled medicine that leaves you mesmerized by the power of humans to make this world work in ways that are good and right and life-affirming.

But that care, I am afraid, is an isolated outlier in a calloused and awful system of administration, bureaucracy, and dehumanization caused by our lack of political courage as a people, as a country.

The power of universal healthcare and a single-payer system to provide humanity and dignity to the amazing medicine and brilliant healthcare providers already in the U.S. is left in the wake of our hollow nation.

A nation that is the wealthiest and most powerful in human history.

A nation that allows more than 1 in 5 children to live in poverty.

A nation of heartless and vicious partisan politics poised to dump an already inadequate system into the laps of caretakers, family members.

My accident exposes the hollowness of calls for individual responsibility; the system is designed to allow serial carelessness that leaves innocent victims responsible.

My mother’s stroke exposes that we as a nation genuinely do not care about a generation of people who may have bought the American Dream myth most sincerely—people such as my parents who were buoyed by white privilege they denied, who preached and practiced  the rigged rugged individualism scarred by racism with the faith it would pay off as they decline into their new reality of being dependent on the kindness of not only family, but the kindness of strangers.

Wealth and security are hoarded by a few, a vicious tribalism of a country that denies community, the power and dignity of everyone caring about everyone—not just the tunnel vision quest of “me getting mine,” the mean-spirited Social Darwinism that lurks beneath our national platitudes about working hard and fair play.

A hollow nation that denies the humanity of all sorts of “others” because of race and religion, but also culls away many at the edges of white privileged—white poor, white working-poor, white working class.

My parents represent that even the wink-wink-nod-nod promise of the American Dream (the white nationalism of “Make America Great Again”) is a lie, a calloused lie within the larger lie to the tired, the poor, the huddled massed—and especially a bald-faced lie about the so-called melting pot, a metaphor more accurate if named a witch’s cauldron.

With these realities before me, it is tempting to call for the removal of the Statue of Liberty, but at least, we must strip it of the poem inscribed at the base and post instead:

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”