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.
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!!! ), 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.
 In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!
Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:
Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.
But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.
Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.
The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:
According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…
Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.
However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.
First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology , as examined by Paul Gorksi:
Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).
Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.
Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.
This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.
As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”
This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.
One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.
The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”
Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.
Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.
But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).
As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.
In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.
We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).
The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:
At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.
The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.
And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.
Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:
Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.
The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
 See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes
“‘[N]ext to of course god america/ i love you,'” opens e.e. cummings’s satirical sonnet about the hollowness of political pandering to love of God, family, country—a staple of stump speeches by both major political parties in the U.S.
The speaker turns to war toward the end:
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
Late in the presidential election cycle of 2016, this poem resonates in a way that should leave every American resolute to defend the ideals we claim are at the core of a free people.
As summer creeps toward fall, we are not just about to elect a president, but are faced with a test; it is pass/fail and there are no re-takes.
The test is the Khan moment, when a grieving Muslim family spoke out at the Democratic National Convention to confront the rising and emboldened bigotry that is personified by Donald Trump but endemic of the Republican Party.
For decades, the Republican playbook has included a wink-wink-nod-nod approach to very thinly veiled courting of racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobes. Trump has now taken that playbook to a new level—with outright Islamophobia and xenophobia at the center.
My son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, died 12 years ago in Iraq. He loved America, where we moved when he was 2 years old. He had volunteered to help his country, signing up for the ROTC at the University of Virginia. This was before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t have to do this, but he wanted to.
Tillman’s and Khan’s service and deaths share being politicized for partisan purposes—adding additional layers of insult to injury.
But both also are about far more than partisan politics; they expose that cummings was right: Political pandering to God, family, and country as well as the public’s cheering for that pandering is ultimately hollow.
Both Republican and Democrat politicians are warmongers, elites willing to fight wars on the backs of the “heroic happy dead.”
The Khan moment, however, raises a blunt question: Which party, which candidate, Trump or Hillary, are racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and/or xenophobes supporting?
And there is the damning truth because Trump and the Republican Party are the voices of bigotry.
Many, myself included, believe the war in which Humayun Khan died was yet another senseless war, a waste of human life and valuable national resources.
Many also recognize that the Khan family as well as others scarred by these wars have no political party unsullied by warmongering.
Yet, as a pacifist, I must acknowledge that many marginalized people choose to join, serve, fight, and die in the U.S. military.
Black, brown, gay, female, and Muslim—these soldiers may be guided by higher ideals than the calloused and hollow political leaders waging those wars.
What, then, would these marginalized people be fighting for?
The Khan moment stands before us a test about religious freedom.
A young Muslim man may have seen far more promise for religious freedom in the U.S. than in other countries—until after his sacrifice his parents had to sit by and listen to Trump call for religious intolerance, to watch as a major political party nominated this man in the wake of naked hatred.
Religious freedom for some, but not others, is not religious freedom.
The Khan moment is not about limited government, taxation, crumbling infrastructures, or hundreds of legitimate but ultimately mundane issues about which people can have partisan political disagreements.
The Khan moment is about the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and the continuing inability of people in the U.S. to live the ideals instead of simply mouthing them.
Consider carefully the U.S. when children were subjected to horrific labor.
Were the children culpable for that abuse? Did children have the physical or political power to end the abuse?
Or were the adults responsible—the only agents of that process capable of ending child labor?
These may seem to be silly questions with obvious answers, but when racism, classism, and sexism are confronted in the U.S., many shift the accusatory finger to the victims, calling for the victims themselves to right the wrongs leveled against them.
Black and brown people in the U.S. did not create racism, do not perpetuate racism, and cannot end racism. Poor people do not cause poverty, and despite what pandering conservatives believe, cannot “think [their] way out of poverty.” And women are not the cause of rape culture, inequitable pay, and domestic abuse; they cannot end them either.
Change ultimately lies with those who have power—physical, political, financial, ideological.
And there isn’t a damn thing fair about who has power in the U.S.—or who does not.
And while the U.S. has mostly eradicated child labor through laws, we are still confronted with Tamir Rice—a boy, a child shot and killed by a police officer sworn to protect and serve.
Tamir Rice was a child.
For the most part, those people with power don’t give a real damn about Rice’s tragic story. There is some passing rhetoric, but there is no action to prove otherwise.
Philando Castile lies before us now. His tragic story also means almost nothing to those with power, but the lessons are dark and powerful:
“What Mr. Castile symbolizes for a lot of us working in public defense is that driving offenses are typically just crimes of poverty,” says Erik Sandvick, a public defender in Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul and its suburbs….
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University and the author of Crook County, which documents the problems in the criminal justice system of Chicago, said Castile was the “classic case” of what criminologists have called “net widening,” or the move of local authorities to criminalize more and more aspects of regular life.
“It is in particular a way that people of color and the poor are victimized on a daily basis,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.
Rice and Castile were criminalized—rendered by the mere facts of race and class.
Being black or brown, poor, or female are burdens from which people cannot take a vacation. Because of systemic racism, classism, and sexism, the condition of scarcity “leaves citizens with no good choices — having to pick, for instance, whether to pay a fine or pay for car insurance,” as Castile represents.
Interpreting Tamir Rice as older than his age and violent, dangerous was nested in the police officer—not Rice.
That officer was an agent of systemic racism that justifies excessive use of force, racial profiling, and a whole host of criminalizing practices by the state.
From school-based discipline polices to zero tolerance, we have ample evidence that formal schooling creates criminals in the same ways policing creates criminals in some neighborhoods (read poor and black, brown).
But as we ignore the tragic stories and lessons of Rice and Castile—among so many others—we also ignore who controls the game.
One day, marijuana possession and sales are crimes, and then, the next, marijuana possession and sales are good ol’ business. In the first case, criminalizing disproportionately black and poor people, and in the second case, making monied white folk wealthier.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong about using or selling marijuana; only who controls the right and wrong matters.
Racism targeting blacks in the U.S. suggests the problems lie in blacks themselves. Classism in the U.S. blames laziness among the poor for poverty. Sexism deems women inferior to men and the cause of their own sexual abuse.
All of this, however, is as obvious as the opening questions.
Brock Turner—privileged, white, and drunk—and Judge Aaron Persky—white, male, and drunk on privilege—are the problems to be addressed.
The even uglier reality is that the power to admit these problems of white privilege and to do something about it rests in people just like Turner and Persky.
…so feared by a patriarchal world…
But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”
Let’s start with a fact that few are willing to acknowledge:
Despite endless debates between and about the Right and the Left in the U.S., there is no substantial Left in the U.S.—a country that is solidly right of center and distinctly so when compared to Canada or European countries with a vibrant Left.
The U.S. Left is Obama and the Clintons—neoliberals who nudge at the left edge of capitalism and a country in perpetual war.
The U.S. Left is a sort of polite progressivism of rhetoric that sees almost no fruition in action of any kind.
The U.S. Left meekly raises it hand and whispers: “Might we consider how we could be a tad bit less sexist, racist, and homophobic—and if that isn’t too much trouble, a little less violent?”—before shrinking away for fear of the response.
And those whispers—or God forbid a direct shout—are met with what we have now in the U.S., a newly butthurt Right, an outbreak (dare I say “epidemic”) of white-man vapors.
Nicholas Kristof—nice-guy, cardboard “progressive”—thinks the nasty Left in the U.S. has excluded the Right from academia (and we all know how powerful academia is in the U.S., right? nudge nudge), and the education reform movement (a bi-partisan assault on public education that is entirely a rightwing enterprise) is all atwitter because of the contentious Left/Right divide (Gosh, they are fuming, if those nasty BLM folk don’t settle down, all the Righties will flee the reform movement!).
All of this butthurt on the Right is very much reflected in both the rise of Trump in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the silliness of Kristof and edureform butthurt.
The white-man vapors are triggered by Michelle Alexander’s relatively moderate confrontation of the New Jim Crow, the polite left-of-center Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Norman Rockwell Obama family just as they are accelerated by BLM, Cornel West, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
And the butthurt messages come from faux-progressives (Kristof) as much as they come from the rabid Right—political leaders, religious leaders, and law enforcement publicly stating that gays slaughtered in Orlando deserved the massacre or calling on gun owners to shoot black protesters at Trump rallies and the Republican convention.
The polite and articulate butthurt punditry on the Right, like Michael Petrilli trying to shame BLM for having the audacity to name racism “racism,” is very little different from the bully racism of Trump; in fact, they are an inseparable part of the U.S.’s conservative nature reflected in the necrophilic South.
In fact, the U.S. once chided the South for its backwardness, its illogical Bible thumping and gun toting, but we stand today in a U.S. where the essence of the entire country is just like that South.
The white-man vapors are upon us, but we must not fall prey to the same-old faux-liberal solution to yelping Rightwingers; we must not shrink against the fears of the most powerful people in the country who see their ill-gained fortunes and power slipping away.
No, the butthurt Right is a sign that women, black and brown people, the LGBT+ community, and people of all faiths and nationalities are demanding to be heard, are standing on the right side of history, which is ironically on the Left.
Higher education does not need a diversity of thought that includes traditional bigotry, misogyny, and a blind faith in disaster capitalism.
And let’s hope the neoliberals (self-identified as both Right and Left) throw up their hands and exit stage right the education reform movement—which has rained terror on the vulnerable populations of students who need our public schools the most.
James Baldwin wrote in The Nation (July 11, 1966), “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”
He was naming racism “racism,” both in the acts of specific police officers and as a systemic reality of the U.S. codified in the judicial system.
Baldwin was not being impolite. He was not ostracizing the Right or shaming white male patriarchy.
Baldwin was speaking necessary truth to power—and it resonates to this day because the butthurt Right slips into the vapors every time they are held accountable for the wreck of the ship they built and captained.
The barely audible Left in the U.S. has pushed the door slightly open to the House White Male Privilege built.
The owners are clutching their pearls as they lean against that door chastising the intruders to please simmer down.
We must not step back. We must push the door open, throw out the Masters, and start anew.
We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.
“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme and, therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….
“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely, “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
I wrote Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. to reject the decades-long focus on education reform targeted in-school only accountability driven by ever-new standards and high-stakes testing.
But that work also reveals the incredible power of stereotypes about adults and children living in poverty in the U.S. Despite our cultural myths about rugged individualism and boot-straps success, the impoverished in the U.S. are overwhelmingly vulnerable populations.
Consider the following sobering statistics, illustrated in the figure above:
- More than a third of those who live in poverty are children. More than 15.5 million children lived in poverty in 2014.
- About 13 percent of those living in poverty are senior citizens or retired.
- A quarter of those who live in poverty are in the labor force—that is, working or seeking employment.
- A tenth of those in poverty are disabled.
- Eight percent of those living in poverty are caregivers, meaning that they report caring for children or family.
- Students, either full- or part-time, make up another seven percent of those living in poverty.
- Just three percent of those living in poverty are working-age adults who do not fall into one of these categories—that is, they are not in the labor force, not disabled, and not a student, caregiver, or retired.
- Five stereotypes about poor families and education, excerpt from Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul C. Gorski
Stereotype 2: Poor People Are Lazy
Another common stereotype about poor people, and particularly poor people of color (Cleaveland, 2008; Seccombe, 2002), is that they are lazy or have weak work ethics (Kelly, 2010). Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the “laziness” image of people in poverty and the stigma attached to it has particularly devastating effects on the morale of poor communities (Cleaveland, 2008).
The truth is, there is no indication that poor people are lazier or have weaker work ethics than people from other socioeconomic groups (Iversen & Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997). To the contrary, all indications are that poor people work just as hard as, and perhaps harder than, people from higher socioeconomic brackets (Reamer, Waldron, Hatcher, & Hayes, 2008). In fact, poor working adults work, on average, 2,500 hours per year, the rough equivalent of 1.2 full time jobs (Waldron, Roberts, & Reamer, 2004), often patching together several part-time jobs in order to support their families. People living in poverty who are working part-time are more likely than people from other socioeconomic conditions to be doing so involuntarily, despite seeking full-time work (Kim, 1999).
Beyond the obvious—that they are all joined by the field of education—what links the National Reading Panel (NRP) and No Child Left Behind, the edureform documentary propaganda Waiting for “Superman,” Teach For America, and edusavior Steve Perry?
While I count myself among English language arts (ELA) teachers who are skeptical of the Great Books mindset—that we have essential books all children must read—I am moved today to endorse how many of those works remind we puny humans about the folly of pride. Not the “I am proud of you daughter/son” pride, but the arrogance pride.
The “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'” kind of pride.
What on earth possessed politicians to form the NRP to find out what we know about teaching children to read? Did anyone point out that we have had a vibrant field of literacy in the U.S. for a good century? Isn’t it sort of obvious that we have dozens upon dozens of people across the U.S. who know exactly how to teach children to read (and have known for decades)?
But it isn’t just the teaching of reading.
Naive experts, often journalists, every week roll out yet another book in which she or he researches a field in which real experts in that field have been doing authentic work for decades—the history of teaching!, how to teach poor children!, the glory of 10,000 hours of practice!
Paternalistic, self-important, blowhard politicians daily puff up in front of the public to be that “Superman” at the center of the great lie documentary noted above that ironically serves as a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with education reform.
But one need not go back to that complete failure of film making. Try within the last week.
I consider myself a student of Andre Perry and Vilson, as I work to navigate my own white male privilege in a way that serves others—specifically those marginalized by race and class.
I am a product of white privilege and colonialism, and therefore, must not serve those corrosive forces.
Here, I urge you to read Andre Perry and Vilson, but also to act upon their messages.
And I want to offer a tentative framing informed by their charges.
First, I am compelled by the new 30 for 30 series on O.J. Simpson to suggest that Simpson himself is a cautionary tale about the dangers of white privilege and the costs of whitewashing blacks in order for them to be allowed into mainstream society.
Next, I find troubling parallels in the work of Steve Perry with powerful blacks (Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, and Simpson) who negotiate the whitewashing in their favor at the expense of all other people of color.
The demonizing of dreadlocks, the finger-pointing at sagging pants, the judgmental finger-wagging at black English—yes, these are the tools of white privilege, but they also serve the cult of personality unmasked in Steve Perry, for example, by Andre Perry and Vilson.
Finally, although specific people have to be addressed when confronting the cult of personality, the problem is that those people are serving larger forces that are driving education reform, a movement that uses “civil rights” as a mask to implement policies that are perpetuating colonialism and whitewashing.
“No excuses” charter schools committed to “grit” are about “fixing” black, brown, and poor children.
Zero tolerance policies and grade retention policies disproportionately turn black, brown, and poor children into criminals and drop-outs.
High-stakes testing and accountability produce and perpetuate so-called achievement gaps among race and social class—as well as gate-keep in order to keep “other people’s children” in their place.
Teach For America fuels the historical inequity of access to experienced and certified teachers: White Students Get Experienced Teachers, While Black Students Get Police In School.
Whether the face of education reform is Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, or Steve Perry (or the long list of celebrities who decide education is their hobby), and while we must necessarily confront each person as we confront what they represent, the ultimate challenge in rejecting edureform while also calling for building public education as a vehicle for equity and liberation is to call colonialism “colonialism,” to just say no to policies and practices designed to erase who children are so that they can be assimilated into society.
There are profound and significant differences in Andre Perry’s work, Vilson’s daily classroom teaching, and Steve Perry’s bloviating (think Donald Trump).
Andre Perry, Vilson, and Chris Emdin, for example, celebrate black students, their humanity as inseparable from their blackness—while Steve Perry celebrates Steve Perry as one who erases the black from children in the service of white privilege.
We are way past time to stop believing in and listening to these false idols, self-proclaimed “Super(wo)men.”
Ozymandias, please recall, was a fool in king’s clothing whose words mocked him:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Let’s not form any more panels, let’s not crown any more edusaviors, let’s not print and/or buy any more bestselling books by educelebrities (who have never been teachers), let’s not worship at the altar of hollow Ted Talks.
Just as we didn’t need the NRP to “know how to teach children to read,” we have ample knowledge right now how to eradicate racism and classism in our society and our schools.
Edureformers, edusaviors, and educelebrities are in the service of keeping us from that vital work.
As Andre Perry asserts:
Let’s be clear: Belt wearing isn’t the reason white children are educated in wealthier schools. Haircuts and etiquette classes don’t lead to the technological innovations of Silicon Valley. Lower incarceration rates aren’t because whites use drugs less often. The wage gap isn’t caused by white men’s hard work ethic.
But social and educational inequity is the consequence of white privilege.
So I ask now that you listen to carefully and then act upon Chris Emdin‘s confrontation of edureform as colonialism and what choices lie before teachers:
What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….
I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds….
The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (pp. viii-ix, 206)
Especially in our schools, and especially among our most vulnerable students, we need service, not saviors.