We Can, and We Must

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

The Stranger, Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can, and we must.

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

Recommended: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul C. Gorski

The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

Aldous Huxley, The Olive Tree (1936)

While working on a piece for The Conversation US rejecting the increased focus on teaching struggling students (mostly poor, black, Latino/a, special needs students as well as English language learners) “grit,” I came across yet another report on poor students disproportionately being assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers (including Teach for America candidates) and the inequitable as well as negative consequences of underfunded and poorly maintained school facilities.

Children in the U.S. are increasingly the victims of inequitable social, economic, and educational circumstances not of their making, and mostly ignored by those with power in the country.

Too few educators and academics, I think, are enraged about that inequity; too few are moved to action even if they are enraged.

And that is a large part of the reason I was drawn to the work of Paul Gorski several years ago as I began to compile the growing counter-arguments against the popular but deeply flawed poverty “framework” and concurrent book and workshop being sold by Ruby Payne [1] to schools across the U.S.

Gorski is passionate, measured, and informed about race, class, and gender inequity; he is also a dedicated soldier in taking action against that inequity.

Associate professor at George Mason University and founder of EdChange, an organization dedicated to social justice and educational equity, Gorski has written an incredibly accessible, powerful, and relatively brief alternative to the many careless “culture of poverty” books, workshops, and programs: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013).

As an educator and academic with a working-class background rooted in rural poverty, I recognize in Gorski a shared journey that informs out world-view as well as our belief in advocacy.

Gorski offers several stories of his own working-class and impoverished family while he seeks always to offer readers a compassionate, compelling, and practical journey that asks each of us to confront our biases in order “to take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income students and families” (p. 155).

Gorski’s Equity Literacy Approach: Rejecting “Culture and Mind-Set of Poverty” Frameworks

While Gorski’s book examines specifically issues related to social class and education—and remains mostly concerned with in-school practices—while speaking to a teacher audience, this work is suitable for all sorts of people navigating inequity of many kinds, inside and outside of school.

Gorski frames his discussion around Equity Literacy, defined “as the skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to, and redress conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers and, in doing so, sustain equitable learning environments for all students and families” (p. 19). He outlines the ten principles of Equity Literacy and uses these principles to anchor the remaining chapters of the book.

After detailing Equity Literacy, Gorski continues his discussion by helping readers rethink and understand class and poverty before working through the following: (1) rejecting popular “culture of poverty” claims and other stereotyping of social class, (2) recognizing the out-of-school influences on teaching and learning, (3) reframing the achievement gap as the opportunity gap, (4) debunking popular but flawed approaches to teaching impoverished students, (5) detailing effective practices for students in poverty, (6) advocating for working with (and not on) impoverished families, and (7) calling for teacher advocacy beyond the classroom.

Several important themes run through this volume that should resonate with teachers faced with the significant and complex challenges of working with children and families living in poverty.

Broadly and throughout the book, Gorski asks readers to reconsider our faith in the U.S. being a meritocracy: “[M]eritocracy assumes a level playing field that…simply does not exist. Context counts” (p. 17). And this also challenges our trust in the power of the work ethic, about which he argues, “Working hard is no guarantee, especially not when, on top of your poverty, you’re denied equal educational opportunities” (p. 17).

Next, readers must step back from assumptions about class characteristics and then also reconsider stereotypes about people in poverty specifically. Gorski cautions that no social class is easily reduced to a set of qualities, and that we continue in the U.S. to demonize people in poverty by “blaming the victim” despite “most of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs” (p. 26).

Here, Gorski warns, is why “culture of poverty” approaches fail—both as stereotyping of people in poverty (and thus not supported by the abundance of research in social class and poverty) and misguided for seeking ways to “fix” the people in poverty instead of poverty and its corrosive consequences directly (see p. 109):

In other words, to use an education example, we deny people in poverty access to equal educational opportunity, access to healthcare, and even access to air unspoiled by environmental hazards. We do this for generations and then, when some low-income youth don’t do well on standardized tests or drop out of school or seem disengaged in class, we forget about these inequities and blame it on their “culture.” (p. 54)

Once we can reject stereotypes about poverty and people in poverty—specifically by refusing the deficit perspective (see p. 111)—we can recognize that children and families in poverty “demonstrat[e] impressive resilience” (p. 60).

Differences among people in identifiable social classes, such as behaviors, are “marker[s] of access and opportunity” (p. 80) but not inherent character differences in those people (see also Mullainathan and Shafir below).

Despite Gorski’s primary focus on how we can better serve impoverished populations through formal education, he stresses “[w]e never will realize educational equity in any full sense until we address bigger economic justice concerns” (p. 118).

That admitted, the discussion warns readers about “missionary zeal,” the desire to impose on children and families in poverty instead of asking how we can use our relative privilege in their service. It is here that Gorski calls on our “humility” (p. 135).

However, Gorski does recognize that current efforts to reform education—often accompanied by claims of “closing the achievement gap”—work in the service of doing just the opposite, further oppressing impoverished and other marginalized students—for example, targeting those students for mostly test-prep.

Faculty and Individual Commitments to Students in Poverty

Ultimately, Gorski’s book is an anti-dote to the “culture of poverty” workshop approach to addressing high-poverty student populations, an approach that is neither supported by the evidence nor effective for specific schools or individual students.

Despite the popularity of poverty simulations and workshops, we must admit, as Kincheloe (2005) explains:

Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added]. (p. 2)

And as Gorski has written elsewhere, good intentions are not enough if those with good intentions are not well informed.

As faculties and individual teachers confronted with the considerable challenge of teaching students living in poverty, then, we are tasked with first confronting ourselves, and then, taking the time and care to look carefully and listen intently to the specific communities and students we serve so we can, as noted above, “[stand] next to, [stand] with.”

High-poverty students are cheated out of the education they deserve when their school day is reduced to worksheets and workbooks. Educators who believe they can reach and teach students in poverty through workbooks and workshops are equally as destined to failure.

It, then, remains not enough to have good intentions. As Gorski urges, “The good news is, we can stand up….We can listen” (p. 156).


[1] The framework and workshops marketed by Payne are completely lacking in credibility; in fact, her claims about people in poverty are themselves classist and racist stereotypes. See a significant body of scholarship debunking her work.

See Also

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our LivesSendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

The Payne of Addressing Race and Poverty in Public Education: Utopian Accountability and Deficit Assumptions of Middle-Class America, P. L. Thomas

How School Taught Me I Was Poor, Jeff Sapp

The “Word Gap”: A Reader

Journal of Educational ControversyVolume 4, Number 1 (2009) The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education

Journal of Educational ControversyVolume 9, Number 1 (2014) Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children: Envisioning Alternative Models

The Inhumanity of Humanity: The Real American Value

As I have detailed when examining science fiction (SF) and speculative fiction, the roots of my fascination with those genres include my mother’s love for science fiction as well as my journey from watching 1950s SF films and Shock Theater with her and then discovering my own foundational works, including the original Planet of the Apes films.

Two of the best moments for me as a parent were when I discovered my very young daughter watching over and over the video-taped Tim Burton Batman with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and then Planet of the Apes films.

Since I love the original Planet of the Apes films, I have always been skeptical of the reboots, but when I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was pleasantly surprised—I think mostly because the technological advances that have made superhero-comics-to-films work also gave a new life to the Apes franchise.

None the less, even when mostly good, Hollywood films designed as blockbusters tend to have far more problems than I can stand.

A week or so ago, I noticed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had come to my cable service and I caught it after more than 30 minutes in and while my granddaughter was visiting—so I actually only semi-watched some of the film.

My film-watching life has been limited now to cable film watching, but that facilitates my obsessive self—the urge to watch, re-watch, and re-watch films—often in pieces and out of order.

Tired after a hard cycling day in the late May heat of South Carolina, I noticed Dawn running again last night, and then an interesting coincidence occurred: I watched The Good Lie wrapped around the re-watching of Dawn.

Waiting for Dawn to start, I scrolled past Lie, pausing after reading the synopsis. I do not recall ever seeing Lie advertised and had also missed the controversy about the film, but I wondered how badly a Reese Witherspoon vehicle would mangle what appeared to be an important (and mostly ignored in the U.S.) consideration about the Sudan.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I had to switch to my full viewing of Dawn; however, after Dawn, I noticed Lie on a different time zone channel, resulting in my watching both mostly back to back.

Keeping in mind a strong caveat about popular films, I found Dawn to be quite good, and in many ways, Lie is horrible, inexcusably so.

Both films struggle (I think unconsciously) with the white savior motif that plagues Hollywood, and viewed together, the films are stained by sometimes gross stereotyping.

When the films are not simplistic (and when Lie isn’t muddled by a complete lack of control of tone), there are thematic moments shared between them that should not be ignored underneath all the faults.

Dawn shows the inhumanity of humanity, and Lie exposes the inhumanity of capitalism in the U.S.

Both messages are vivid, intense, and mostly accurate; but I suspect also missed by audiences.

Taken together, the films also dramatize the power of cultural norms to shape individual behavior—a story that refutes the rugged individualism narrative endorsed in the U.S. (and typical of U.S. films).

There is a nobility to Caesar (Dawn) and Jeremiah (Lie) that stands in stark contrast with the basic nature of humans (Dawn) and the capitalist ethic in the U.S. (Lie).

Caesar is forced to break and twist his dictum when Caesar kills Koba (the ape embodiment of human nature):

Koba: Apes not kill apes.

Caesar: You are no ape.

And Jeremiah must choose between his own need to work and his ethical code when faced with a grocery store throwing away food and refusing to give that food to the needy:

Nick: What are you doing?

Jeremiah: It is a sin not to give to those in need.

Nick: According to who?

Jeremiah: Jeremiah.

Nick: And who is that?

Jeremiah: [turning in his apron] Me. My name is Jeremiah.

I suppose if nothing else, popular films have their moments when they are so simple even a child can see the messages: Caesar is more humane, more human than the humans, and Jeremiah is more Christlike than the citizens of a so-called Christian nation.

In his 2013 speech about reading and libraries, writer Neil Gaiman could just as easily been talking about the possible consequences of all art:

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:


He then explains about fiction:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And these words ring true in the wake of my having watched a mostly good film (Dawn) and an often really bad one (Lie) that both demand of the audience: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Humbly, I would add: If we truly were discontent with this world we have created.

And with deep regret, I must conclude that we can tolerate things being different only in these Other Worlds, but not right here in the real world—one in which we are content with pervasive human-made violence and grocery stores that throw away food while the undeserving poor go hungry because that is what the market demands.

Birth Lottery Winners Expect “Character and Values” Litmus Test for the Poor

Before examining President Barack Obama’s recent—and some suggest promising—willingness to address poverty, in the wake of a similar slow-to-wake concern for racism, we must clarify who are the poor. As Matt Bruenig explains, and presents in graphic form (below):

who are the poor

As you can see, more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.

Now, as we are clear that the largest single group of poor are children and the vast majority of poor are “vulnerable populations,” let’s consider the qualified comments by President Obama on poverty:

In Tuesday’s discussion with Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard professor, and Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Obama said it was important for liberals to accept the importance of character and values in confronting the poverty and violence in some of America’s communities.

“I am a black man who grew up without a father, and I know the costs that I paid for that,” Mr. Obama said. But he blamed Republicans for suggesting that a focus on values means that government does not have to invest in public institutions like early childhood education, job training or public infrastructure that could benefit the poor.

And he chided religious organizations for sometimes focusing too heavily on issues like abortion rather than keeping the pressure on politicians to confront poverty.

While Obama wades into the Conservative call for having a character and values litmus test for the poor, as Charles Blow examines, Obama also confronts the popular and media efforts to demonize the poor as inherently lazy, and thus deserving their poverty:

This week, during a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University, President Obama lambasted the media, and in particular Fox News, for creating false, destructive narratives about the poor that paint them broadly as indolent and pathological.

The president said:

“Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”

Ultimately, however, a character and values litmus test for the poor as a condition for addressing poverty proves to be inexcusable in the context of no such litmus test exists for the wealthy; in fact, being wealthy facilitates avoiding the consequences of having low character and flawed values.

The selective and biased demand that the poor have character and values not required of other social classes is paralleled by the political, popular, and media concern about “giving money to the (undeserving) poor“—although there seems little concern about the wealthy giving money (inheritance) to people who haven’t earned that money.

To address the plague of poverty without conditions is an act of high character and values by a people; to demand something of the powerless that we do not demand of the powerful as a condition of addressing inequity is the lowest sort of character and values.

As well, however, we must be willing to confront that the “character and values” mantra of the elite Right (since those on the Right do not embody either but maintain their wealth and power) is code for valuing property over human dignity, and even human life—disturbingly reflected in the discourse from the Right about Baltimore’s uprising.

Privilege and disadvantage driven by racism and classism trump all consequences of character and values in the U.S.

Demanding a character and values litmus test for the poor as a condition for addressing social inequity is a veneer for those who have won the birth lottery but either believe themselves or want others to believe that their lot in life has been earned, is deserved.

It is the mantra of those born on third base who think they hit a triple.

From Crenshaw to Hartsville: Race, Poverty, and Education Reform

In order to avoid the existential hell known as I-85 where morning commuters creep along bug-like in a daily Kafkan nightmare, I take winding backroads through the Upstate of South Carolina to my university.

Recently, I noticed a real estate sign advertising a new neighborhood with an added bright yellow sign above signaling, “RIVERSIDE SCHOOLS.”

Children in this housing development will attend, eventually, Riverside High, which is ranked 13th lowest of 237 SC high schools in the 2014 Poverty Index, has Excellent/Excellent ratings on the 2014 SC report card, and tests only 51/341 students on subsidized meals and 25/341 with limited English proficiency:

Riverside HS PI 2014

Riverside HS 2014 report card 1Among four other comparable high schools in the state, they all are rated Excellent:

Riverside HS schools like ours 2014Having placed student teachers at Riverside High, and knowing faculty there, I can attest that this is a wonderful school, and students are both supported and challenged.

The real estate sign struck me especially since I had viewed two new educational documentaries: Crenshaw, a film by activist Lena Jackson on the Los Angeles school, and 180 Days: Hartsville, focusing on two schools—Thornwell School for the Arts and West Hartsville Elementary School—along the infamous I-95 Corridor of Shame in my home state of SC.

While nearly 2500 miles apart and politically/culturally worlds apart, Los Angeles and Hartsville reflect powerful narratives about the intersections of race, poverty, and education reform. As well, they offer nuance to those intersections since Creshaw High is high-poverty, majority-minority in an urban setting while Hartsville’s elementary schools are high-poverty, majority-minorty in the rural South.

Before discussing each documentary separately, let me highlight what they share as entry points into reconsidering race, poverty, and education reform:

  • Public schools both serve and reflect the communities within which they sit.
  • Race and poverty significantly impact academic achievement, and thus, when schools, teachers, and students are labeled, ranked, and judged by test scores, high-poverty and majority-minority schools are disproportionately identified as “failing.”
  • Political leadership often expresses support for education and public schools, but implements policies that appear tone deaf to the communities they represent.
  • Education reform advocates ignore the failure of popular policies.
  • Demands of effort and not embracing excuses dominate political and educational rhetoric (despite ample evidence that effort is trumped by racism/classism).
  • Parents, students, and teachers are often passionate about education, regardless of economic status or race.

Crenshaw: Disenfranchising through Take Over Strategies

Crenshaw is, as David B. Cohen explains, a “cautionary tale” about school take overs narrowly and education reform built on accountability broadly.

Jackson does a wonderful job in 20 minutes introducing viewers to the students, parents, and teachers whose lives and learning/teaching are dramatically disrupted by converting Crenshaw High into a magnet school as part of a take over plan.

This film is an excellent introduction to how so-called good intentions of political education reform is not only insufficient, but also harmful.

The take over of Crenshaw disenfranchises the students, parents, and teachers highlighted in the documentary and exposes that political leadership (school board and Superintendent John Deasy) often fails to be culturally sensitive or appropriately responsive to the needs of the people they serve.

Ultimately, as in New Orleans, Crenshaw and the take over represent a failure to identify the sources of entrenched problems, to listen to the people whose lives are being impacted by policy, and to be open to alternative views of both problems and solutions.

Crenshaw High is now and has been for decades a reflection of deep and serious social inequity fueled by racism, classism, and an unresponsive political establishment.

Changing a school’s name, firing the adults who have dedicated their lives to students, and ignoring the parents of those students—these appear to be the worst possible actions available, and regretfully, what more and more political leaders seem determined to do.

Hartsville: It’s All about the Tests (I Mean, Children)

As a life-long resident of and career-long educator in SC, I have lived and witnessed the historical and lingering racism and poverty that scar our state and our schools.

In my education foundations and educational documentary courses, I show Corridor of Shame, and we examine issues related to pockets of poverty across SC and school funding.

I also highlight how problematic Corridor is as a documentary since it depends on maudlin music and slow-motion shots of children looking forlorn. The inequity along I-95 in SC needs no emotional appeal; the conditions are inexcusable, and any reasonable person can see that.

In that context, I was nervous about 180 Days: Hartsville—although I do trust and respect co-producer Sam Chaltain and feel that the documentary does offer a much more complex portrayal of education reform, race, and poverty in SC than Corridor.

Broadly, depending on how audiences interpret the narratives of the film, 180 Days: Hartsville challenges the effectiveness of accountability-based reform that focuses on in-school policies only.

That “depending,” however, is huge.

Yes, the two schools and the central family highlighted are wonderful and accurate representations of the huge challenges of public schools in a high-poverty community.

I find the educators, parents, and students extremely compelling and genuine—a tribute to the care taken with the film.

There are also moments that need to be paused, digested carefully: the burdens of working minimum-wage jobs, the pressures of being a child living in poverty and trying to succeed in school, the passion and compassion of educators, and the determination of a parent working two jobs and raising two children alone.

Statistics flashed on the screen and audio/video snippets of political rhetoric against cuts to education funding—these also demand greater critical consideration.

But I am left deeply concerned that too many viewers will not respond as I did to the relentless influence of testing the film captures throughout—because the film is also punctuated with adults expressing a “no excuses” mentality, again with the best intentions.

These educators are supportive and positive, but those qualities cannot temper the weight of testing that has become the end-all, be-all of public schooling—especially for our high-poverty, majority-minority schools.

Viewers watch a highly dedicated principal at Thornwell School for the Arts giving pep talks to entire grade levels of students as well as students preparing to take MAP tests, computerized commercial programs that give detailed and nearly immediate feedback and claim to be strongly correlated with high-stakes state testing.

Viewers also watch as students’ names are moved on a board in front of those students so that each child is listed under her/his status according to the tests.

The money and time spent on MAP and the public labeling of students—not to mention, Where are the arts?—should prompt us all to end the madness that is high-stakes accountability. But, again, I fear many viewers found the story compelling because the educators and students were working so hard, and are characterized as being uniquely successful.

And it is at that last point we must pause.

First, schools that are outliers are not evidence of any need for policy, or for any standard by which to judge all schools. Outliers are outliers for a reason.

But, as well, consider Thornwell School for the Arts 2014 school report card:

Thornwell 2014 report card

And how does Thornwell School for the Arts look against comparable schools across SC?:

Thornwell schools like ours 2014

While the film suggests nearly “miracle” outcomes, the school, in fact, continues to struggle under the burdens of poverty and race; as the classifications above show, the school is typical of schools with similar students.

The film highlights only one of the two ways in which SC evaluates schools—the annual state report card that has been in use for most of SC’s decades of accountability and the federal accountability report (in 2014, Thornwell School for the Arts received a B/86.7 and West Hartsville Elementary, a B/81.1).

Without context, and careful analysis of what data are being portrayed along with why and how (former Superintendent Mick Zais [R] manipulated the federal accountability reports in order to criss-cross the state to “prove” poverty doesn’t matter, for example), viewers are apt to fall under the impression that schools struggling against poverty just need to demand more from educators and children.

However, for me, the key scene is when the principal at West Hartsville Elementary must confront the tremendously complex issues surrounding Rashon, ones that are often outside the ability of the school or even his mother to control.

180 Days: Hartsville is a story of place. It is, like Crenshaw, a cautionary tale, but I suspect one easily misinterpreted.

I think the intent behind this film is to offer Hartsville as a model for education reform addressing race and poverty because the efforts of the educators and students are remarkable and community business has committed to addressing the complex elements of poverty in the area and schools.

However, the film actually reveals that accountability has failed SC and the entire U.S.


The relentless and dehumanizing focus on data—as if people are somehow not involved.

Ultimately what connects Crenshaw in Los Angeles to two elementary schools in SC is this mostly ignored fact: political rhetoric and tone-deaf education policy are not curative but part of the disease.

Once again, there are no miracles—but there are very real and very harmful consequences to demanding the impossible from schools, educators, parents, and children who are ultimately the victims of the racism and poverty political leaders refuse to acknowledge or erase.

For Additional Reading

What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong in the First Place?, Bill Raden

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”

No Child Left Behind fails to work ‘miracles,’ spurs cheating

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference: Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F

Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

Good Intentions, Political Realities, Privileged Cluelessness: On Education Reform and Poverty

Education and education reform are vibrant examples of the wide spectrum of good people with good intentions and then all the way to the other extreme, spurious people with dubious intentions.

When my home state of South Carolina began sliding down that slippery slope of adopting (flawed and misrepresented) reading policy modeled on Florida, I came face to face (actually, voice to voice) with the harsh realization that good people with good intentions can be as harmful as spurious people with dubious intentions: Good people with whom I had been talking suddenly brushed me off, citing political expediency—better to get the money for reading and swallow the horrible grade retention element than to get no money at all, I was told.

I thought of this when I saw associate editor at The State Cindi Scoppe’s To fix SC schools, start with governance. Scoppe, for full disclosure, has published a number of my Op-Eds in The State, notable is that my positions are decidedly not in line with the politics or ideology of my home state.

Also, I am certain Scoppe is a good person with good intentions; she genuinely wants equitable and effective schools for all children in SC.

However, I also know good intentions (even mine) are not enough.

Scoppe opens with admitting she isn’t an expert on educating students, and then offers a relatively modest plan for education reform—ones she characterizes as “commonsense reforms that come from across the political spectrum.” Scoppe endorses the “best ideas from the right and left,” including:

  • Making it easier to fire bad teachers (right);
  • increasing teacher pay to teach impoverished students, and freeing teachers from non-teaching tasks (left);
  • increasing charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice, and giving schools more freedom in spending (right);
  • implementing a better school funding formula, with more equity, and pursuing, possibly, district/school consolidation (left).

My immediate response was to share on Twitter my argument that we need not simply appease the political right and left, or the public, but instead should endorse evidence-based reform addressing equity.

So that leaves these questions:

  • Are bad teachers, and the difficulty firing them, major (or even minor) hurdles to high-quality education for all children in SC? I have never seen anyone making this claim show evidence that this is true. I am deeply skeptical of these claims, also, in a right-to-work state where teachers’ unions have no legal power and very limited buy-in by K-12 teachers in the state. The real teacher quality problem in SC (and across the U.S.) is a tremendous inequity of teacher assignment: affluent and white students disproportionately have experienced and certified/qualified teachers while impoverished, minority, ELL, and special needs students disproportionately have beginning/inexperienced and un-/under-certified/qualified teachers.
  • Would targeted merit pay for teaching high-needs students and relief from non-teaching tasks help improve education for high-poverty, majority-minority schools (notably along the Corridor of Shame)? Unlikely, since legislation in the past in SC has included both, unsuccessfully. Merit pay has been discredited for education (as well as all professions) in general, in fact (see the work of Daniel PinkAlfie Kohn, and Joe Bower). What we do know is that teachers are more motivated by teaching and learning conditions as well as support from administration and parents than by merit pay schemes. Step one for encouraging teachers to work with high-needs students is addressing directly teaching/learning conditions in high-poverty schools. Step two is to reject teacher evaluation plans that are predicted to discourage high-quality teachers from working with the students having the greatest needs.
  • Are investments in charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice effective reform measures for achieving educational equity? No. Charters schools in SC have shown that 95% of charters perform about the same and worse than public schools while also being highly segregated and often underserving ELL and special needs students. And the sloganism of “parental choice” hasn’t proven to be effective either; many efforts to increase parental choice have shown parents rarely choose based on academic quality, but tend to seek social or ideological goals.
  • Does SC need a better school funding formula, one that is more equitable, and one that likely will require consolidation of schools/districts? Yes, with caveats. Here, evidence is key. While there is a “common sense” argument that “money doesn’t matter” or “you can’t just throw money at schools,” solid and long-standing research refutes both; see the work of Bruce Baker. SC needs a new funding formula, but it must not be a partisan political event, and it must be based on research and not talking points. And as a powerful example, school/district consolidation is exactly one of those common sense ideas that research challenges: “While state-level consolidation proposals may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement.”

Good intentions and political expediency, then, simply are not enough—and are likely to keep SC mired in bad education reform piled on top of the historical and lingering cancers of racism and concentrated poverty.

Which brings us to the other side of the spectrum—spurious people with dubious intentions, in this case the grand whitesplainer employed by The New York Times.

I refuse to mention he-who-shall-not-be-named, and gross stereotyping of people in poverty deserves as little attention as possible, but for balance here, I offer a wonderful refuting by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies.

And also, Emmitt Rensin offers a thorough unpacking and discrediting of “blame the poor” mentalities:

It would be one thing if we didn’t recognize the problem of American poverty. It would be easy if the moral scolding of our poor were confined to one section of our polity. Then we might pursue the many avenues of fiscal and monetary policy available to us. But among even those whose rhetoric suggests an awareness of the situation, even those who know that to be born monied in America is to be heir to a self-fulfilling prophesy of the kind of “good” behavior Brooks is crying out for, are so easily seduced by a reversal of effect and cause.

But out here, poor parents, poor kids and poor schools don’t have the luxury of indulging Brook’s harmful, costly relativism. They live by the most inflexible “code” of our national life: If you’re poor, you’re on your own. Good luck. Oh, and we’ll be watching. Future pay will reflect performance….

We aren’t bereft of ideals. Rather, we are plagued with bad ones—that discipline is proved by wealth, that the ideas of middle class luxury help children more than material wealth.

A better set might be the kind that makes the elected, empowered, ostensible advocates of America’s poor ask “tough questions” about their culpability in the condition of “our kids.” The kind that recognizes that there is a moral failure at the bottom of American poverty—but this failure does not belong to its own victims.

I will end with this: U.S. public education, notably in SC, is a disturbing reflection of the inexcusable inequity in our country not the result of anyone’s effort or character, but the consequences of privilege and inequity.

Until we make political, media, and public efforts to eradicate inequity and poverty—including that we rise above the hatred aimed at impoverished people, racial minorities, and women—from our society and our schools, whether we fire bad teachers, add more charter schools, or not will make little difference.

Testing the Education Market, Cashing In, and Failing Social Justice Again

On Black Friday 2014—when the U.S. officially begins the Christmas holiday season, revealing that we mostly worship consumerism (all else is mere decoration)—we are poised to be distracted once again from those things that really matter. Shopping feeding frenzies will allow Ferguson and Tamir Rice to fade away for the privileged—while those most directly impacted by racism and classism, poverty and austerity remain trapped in those realities.

History is proof that these failures have lingered, and that they fade. Listen to James Baldwin. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the narrower education reform debate, we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted, mostly by the Common Core debate itself. As I have stated more times that I care to note, that Common Core advocates have sustained the debate is both a waste of our precious time and proof that Common Core has won.

As well, we are misguided whenever we argue that Common Core uniquely is the problem—instead of recognizing that Common Core is but a current form of a continual failure in education, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

With the release of Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report*, we have yet another opportunity to confront that Common Core is the problem, not the solution, because it is the source of a powerful drain on public resources in education that are not now invested in conditions related to racial and class inequity in our public schools.

Richards and Stebbins (2014) explain:

The PreK-12 testing and assessment market segment has experienced remarkable growth over the last several years. This growth has occurred in difficult economic times during an overall PreK-12 budget and spending decline….

Participants almost universally identified four key factors affecting the recent growth of the digital testing and assessment market segment:

1) The Common Core State Standards are Changing Curricula

2) The Rollout of Common Core Assessments are Galvanizing Activity….

(Executive Summary, pp. 1, 2)

testing and assessment 57 percent
(Richards & Stebbins 2014).

So as I have argued before, Common Core advocacy is market-driven, benefiting those invested in its adoption. But we must also acknowledge that that market success is at the expense of the very students who most need our public schools.

And there is the problem—not the end of cursive, not how we teach math, not whether the standards are age-appropriate.

Common Core is a continuation of failing social justice, draining public resources from needed actions that confront directly the inexcusable inequities of our schools, inequities often reflecting the tragic inequities of our society:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012, 2 of 5)

Who will be held accountable for the cost of feeding the education market while starving our marginalized children’s hope?


Richards, J., & Stebbins, L. (2014). Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report. Washington, D.C.: Software & Information Industry Association.

* Thanks to Schools Matter for posting, and thus, drawing my attention to the study.

Denying White Privilege Has an Evidence Problem

If I had to guess, I suspect Bill O’Reilly fancies himself more akin to George Will, Newt Gingrich, or Cal Thomas than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But speculating on that self-delusion isn’t really necessary because the reality is that all of these white, male pundits share a single quality: privilege.

And thus, it is all the more baffling when O’Reilly holds forth on denying privilege, prompting Charles Blow to conclude perfectly: “Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.”

The “that” to which O’Reilly is blind, of course, is his own privilege built on his being white and male.

It is there that self-delusion is powerful, rendering O’Reilly and his fellow white-male punditry incapable of seeing their self-delusion; thus we have some perverse inversion of Ralph Ellison’s narrator confronting his own invisibility because he is black.

To deny privilege garnered from being a white male reminds me of the same sort of delusion found among Libertarians who champion their rugged individualism—”I did it on my own!”—while remaining incapable of seeing that no one does anything on “her/his own.”

No one.

There is likely a tremendous amount of low self-esteem lurking beneath these white, male pundits who hold forth on anything with a gusto found mostly among 15-year-old boys. In fact, these white, male pundits are essentially suffering arrested development.

And the really ugly truth is that as long as white males dominate U.S. culture in terms of power and wealth, that dynamic creates an echo chamber in which blind-but-loud pundits like O’Reilly speak to the actual and the normalized white male essence of the country.

It is nearly as tiring and cannot be unrelated: We must become so weary of young black males being slaughtered in our country that we do something about it—for and with them, and not to them—and we must also become weary of a ruling elite born on third base (white, male) and confusing that with hitting a triple.

I am sick to my bones with a country that demonizes the powerless while worshipping the privileged.

I am sick to my bones with a country that will not see the human value of its children.

I am sick to my bones with a country that allows the list of names simply to grow: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown …

And I am sick to my bones with a country that creates wealth and celebrity for toxic white males.

It’s inexcusable, it’s embarrassing.

It’s exhausting to repeat, but necessary: we need a moratorium on white men pontification on race, class, and gender.

See Also

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

Denying Impact of Poverty Has an Evidence Problem

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.