I. School Choice, Charter Choice
Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, Nikole Hannah-Jones
When the New York City Public Schools catalog arrived in the mail one day that spring, with information about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new universal prekindergarten program, I told Faraji that I wanted to enroll Najya in a segregated, low-income school. Faraji’s eyes widened as I explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means “liberated” and “free” in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem. Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.
One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.
As I told Faraji my plan, he slowly shook his head no. He wanted to look into parochial schools, or one of the “good” public schools, or even private schools. So we argued, pleading our cases from the living room, up the steps to our office lined with books on slavery and civil rights, and back down, before we came to an impasse and retreated to our respective corners. There is nothing harder than navigating our nation’s racial legacy in this country, and the problem was that we each knew the other was right and wrong at the same time. Faraji couldn’t believe that I was asking him to expose our child to the type of education that the two of us had managed to avoid. He worried that we would be hurting Najya if we put her in a high-poverty, all-black school. “Are we experimenting with our child based on our idealism about public schools?” he asked. “Are we putting her at a disadvantage?”
Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels, including the following:
- Both depend on “racially sanitized rhetoric,” according to Alexander, that thinly masks racism. “Getting tough on crime” justifies disproportional arrests, convictions and sentencing for African Americans; “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” justify highly authoritarian and punitive schools disproportionally serving high-poverty children of color.
- Both depend on claims of objective mechanisms – laws for the war on drugs and test scores for education reform – to deflect charges of racism. Alexander recognizes “this system is better designed to create [emphasis in original] crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals,” (p. 236) just as test-based education reform creates and does not address the achievement gap.
- Both depend on racialized fears among poor and working-class whites, which Alexander identifies in the Reagan drug war agenda: “In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the ‘excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse’ and thus built on the success of the earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race” (p. 48). The charter school movement masks segregation within a progressive-friendly public school choice.
- Both depend on either current claims of post-racial America or the goal of a post-racial society: “This system of control depends far more on racial indifference [emphasis in original] . . . than racial hostility,” Alexander notes. (p. 203)
- Both depend on a bipartisan and popular commitment to seemingly obvious goals of crime eradication and world-class schools.
- Both depend on the appearance of African American support. Alexander explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as ‘proof’ that race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda” (p. 42).
This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.
For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)
New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.
II. GPA v. SAT/ACT
The Alaska study, conducted by a regional research laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that SATs, ACTs and the placement tests used by the University of Alaska were all poor predictors of how a student might do in a college-level math or English class. Many students who did well on these exams bombed their college classes, and vice versa. Instead, the researchers found that if college administrators had simply looked at the students’ high school GPAs, they would have done a much better job at figuring out who needs to relearn high school material and who doesn’t.
“We definitely should be including GPAs when assessing college readiness,” said Michelle Hodara, the lead author of the study and a senior researcher at Education Northwest. “We found the same thing that community college researchers and practitioners are finding, that high school GPA is a really powerful measure of college readiness, even for students who want to earn a four-year degree.”
This study examines the postsecondary readiness of first-time students who enrolled in the University of Alaska system over a four-year period. The study calculates the proportion of students considered academically underprepared for college and how placement rates for developmental education (that is, non–credit-bearing courses) vary for different groups of students. The study also determines the proportion of students placed in developmental education who eventually enrolled in and passed college English and math. Finally, the analysis looks at whether high school grades, rather than exam performance, are a better predictor of success in college-level courses.
Results show that developmental education rates were higher in math than English for students pursuing any degree type and increased as the gap between high school exit and college entry grew. Among students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, developmental placement rates were highest for Black students from urban areas of the state (in math) and Alaska Native students from rural areas (in English) compared to all other student groups. Almost half (47 percent) of students placed in developmental courses eventually passed college English and almost a quarter (23 percent) passed college math. For students who enrolled directly in college, high school grade point average was a stronger predictor of college-level English and math performance than were SAT, ACT, and ACCUPLACER scores. Secondary and postsecondary stakeholders can use the findings to help identify students in need of support to be college-ready and to consider further conversation and additional research regarding whether and how to use high school grade point average as part of the placement process.
Manuel Alfaro is the former executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board.
Beginning on May 15, 2016, Alfaro has published a series of posts on Linkedin in an apparent effort to reveal the haphazard construction of the new SAT, released and first administered in March 2016 and again, in June. (He is also posting info on Twitter: @SATinsider.)
Below are excerpts from Alfaro’s Linkedin posts, all of which provide an enlightening read concerning the sham Coleman has thrown together and labeled the “new SAT.”
Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.
My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.
Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”
And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.
In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:
Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….
And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.
Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.
And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.
Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.
Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.
However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.
The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).
What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.
What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.
Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.
White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.
That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.
Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.
UPDATE: Note Holly Yettick’s One Small Droplet: News Media Coverage of Peer-Reviewed and University-Based Education Research and Academic Expertise; see abstract:
Most members of the American public will never read this article. Instead, they will obtain much of their information about education from the news media. Yet little academic research has examined the type or quality of education research and expertise they will find there. Through the lens of gatekeeping theory, this mixed-methods study aims to address that gap by examining the prevalence of news media citations of evidence that has undergone the quality-control measure of peer review and expertise associated with academics generally required to have expertise in their fields. Results suggest that, unlike science or medical journalists, education writers virtually never cite peer-reviewed research. Nor do they use the American Educational Research Association as a resource. Academic experts are also underrepresented in news media coverage, especially when compared to government officials [bold aded]. Barriers between the news media and academia include structural differences between research on education and the medical or life sciences as well as journalists’ lack of knowledge of the definition and value of peer review and tendency to apply and misapply news values to social science research and expertise.
“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.
Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.
Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York Times: As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:
Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.
Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.
–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015
Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.
Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.
Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.
On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).
This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.
Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.
And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over .
Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:
- Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
- Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
- Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
- The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
- Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
- However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).
The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.
First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.
Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).
And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.
Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.
We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.
There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric .
 See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (, pp. 275-276)
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university. (p. 275)
By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)
The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)
Posted at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled, college instructor Rick Diguette offers a grim picture of first year college writing:
Once upon a time I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall. But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.
Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects. If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.
I read this just after I had been mulling Jessica Lahey’s What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator, and I recognize in both pieces several overlapping concerns that deserve greater consideration as well as some warranted push back.
Let me first frame my response by noting that I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina—where I focused heavily on student writing—and now have been in teacher education for an additional 13 years. My primary role is to prepare future English teachers, but I also serve as the university Faculty Director for First Year Seminars, and thus support the teaching of writing at my university.
In both Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces, we must confront a problematic although enduring sense that “students today” are somehow fundamentally different than students in the past, and that difference is always that “students today” are worse. Students today can’t even write a complete sentence (Diguette), and students today are cheating like there is no tomorrow (Lahey).
This sort of “students today” crisis discourse fails us, I believe, because it is fundamentally skewed by our tendency to be nostalgic about the past as well as by shifting far too much focus on lamenting conditions instead of addressing them.
I offer, then, a broad response to both Diguette’s and Lahey’s central points: Let’s not address student writing and plagiarism/cheating as if these are unique or fundamentally worse concerns for teachers and education in 2014 than at any other point in modern U.S. education.
And for context, especially regarding students as writers, I offer the work of Lou LaBrant on teaching writing (see sources below) and my own examination of teaching writing built on LaBrant’s work; in short:
In “Writing Is More than Structure,” LaBrant (1957) says that “an inherent quality in writing is responsibility for what is said. There is therefore a moral quality in the composition of any piece” (p. 256). For LaBrant, the integrity of the content of a student’s writing outweighs considerably any surface features. In that same article, she offers a metaphor that captures precisely her view of the debate surrounding the teaching of writing—a debate that has persisted in the English field throughout this century: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (p. 256)….
…LaBrant sought ultimately through writing instruction the self-actualized literate adult, the sophisticated thinker. She never wavered in her demand that writing instruction was primarily concerned with making sincere and valuable meaning—not as a means to inculcate a set of arbitrary and misleading rules, rules that were static yet being imposed on a language in flux.
Lou LaBrant remained paradoxically rigid in her stance: The writing curriculum had to be open-ended and child-centered; the content of writing came first, followed by conforming to the conventions; and English teachers had to be master writers, master descriptive grammarians, and historians of the language. It all seemed quite obvious to her, since she personified those qualities that she demanded. LaBrant was one of many who embodied the debates that surround the field of teaching English, and she left writing teachers with one lingering question: Do we want our students drawing blueprints or building houses? The answer is obvious. (pp. 85, 89)
Instead of framing student writing and plagiarism, then, within crisis discourse, we must view the teaching of writing and the need to instill scholarly ethics in our students as fundamental and enduring aspects of teaching at every level of formal schooling. In other words, the problems in student work we encounter as teachers—such as garbled claims; shoddy grammar, mechanics, and usage; improperly cited sources; plagiarism—are simply the foundations upon which we teach.
Along with the essential flaw of viewing “students today” as inferior to students of the past, the urge to lament that students come to any of us poorly prepared by those who taught them before is also misleading and more distraction.
We certainly could and should do a better job moving students along through formal education (see my discussion of common experiences versus standards), but the simple fact is that each teacher must take every student where she/he is and then move that student forward as well as possible. Formal standards and implied expectations about where all students should be mean little in the real world where our job as teachers is bound to each student’s background, proclivities, and all the contexts that support or impede that student’s ability to grow and learn.
Now, before moving on, let me introduce another point about our perceptions of how and when students “learn” literacy. Consider the common view of children learning to read by third grade, for example. As reported at NPR, this widespread assumption that students acquire reading by third (or any) grade is flawed because children and adults continue to evolve as readers (and writers) in ways that defy neat linear categories.
As educator professor and scholar Peter Smagorinsky notes in his response to Diguette, “Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.”
On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching
None of what I have offered so far relieves teachers of this truth: All students need (deserve) writing instruction and that must include serious considerations of proper citations as well as focusing on the ethical implications of being a scholar and a writer (and citizen, of course).
And while I disagree with claims that “students today” are fundamentally worse writers or more prone to plagiarism than students in the past, I do recognize that we can expose why students perform as they do as writers and why students plagiarize and settle for shoddy citation.
Whether we are concerned about the claims or organization in a student writing sample, the surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage), faulty attribution of citations, or outright plagiarism, a central root cause of those issues can be traced to the current thirty-years cycle of public school accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.
As Smagorinsky does, I want to urge anyone concerned about student writing to consider the conclusions drawn by Applebee and Langer regarding the teaching of writing in middle and high school (see my review at Teachers College Record).
Applebee and Langer present a truly disheartening examination of the consequences related to the accountability era as they impact student writing: Although teachers are more aware than ever of best practices in the teaching of writing (due in no small part to the rise of the National Writing Project in the 1970s and 1980s), throughout middle and high school, students are not writing in ways that foster their abilities to generate original ideas; establish, support, and elaborate on credible claims; and polish writing that conforms to traditional conventions for language.
The primary reasons behind this failure are not “bad” teachers or lazy/stupid students, but the demands linked to high-stakes accountability. Just as one example, please consider Thomas Newkirk’s challenge to the unintended and corrosive consequences of writing being added to the SAT in 2005.
The writing section of the SAT has negatively impacted the teaching of writing in the following ways, all of which can be found in contexts related to preparing students for other high-stakes testing situations related to state-based accountability (although NCTE warned about these consequences from the beginning):
- Writing (composition) is reduced to what can be tested in multiple-choice format. In other words, students are being taught and assessed for writing in ways that are not composing. Here we have the central failure of allowing testing formats to correlate with holistic performances, and thus, students are not invited or allowed to spend the needed time for developing those holistic performances (composing). See LaBrant (1953) “Writing Is Learned by Writing.”
- Students write primarily or exclusively from detailed prompts and rubrics assigned by teachers or formulated by test designers. Ultimately, by college, few students have extended experiences with confronting the wide range of decisions that writers make in order to form credible and coherent ideas into a final written form. If many college students cannot write as well as professors would like, the reason is likely that many of those students have never had the opportunity to write in ways that we expect for college students. Students have been drilled in writing for the Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and state accountability tests, but those are not the types of thinking and writing needed by young scholars.
- Students have not experienced extended opportunities to draft original essays over a long period of time while receiving feedback from their teachers and peers; in other words, students have rarely experienced workshop opportunities because teachers do not have the time for such practices in a high-stakes environment that is complicated by budget cut-backs resulting in enormous class sizes that are not conducive to effective writing instruction.
The more productive and credible approach to considering why students write poorly or drift into plagiarism, then, is to confront the commitments we have made to education broadly. The accountability era put a halt to best practice in writing for our teachers and students so we should not be shocked about what college professors see when first year students enter their classes.
But another source of shoddy student writing must not be ignored.
Within that larger context of accountability, student writing that is prompted tends to have much weaker characteristics (content as well as surface features including proper citation) than writing for which students have genuine engagement (see the work of George Hillocks, for example). In other words, while students are not composing nearly enough in their K-12 experiences (and not receiving adequate direct instruction of writing at any formal level), when students do write, the assignments tend to foster the worst sorts of weaknesses highlighted by Diguette and Lahey.
Shoddy ideas and careless editing as well as plagiarism are often the consequences of assigned writing about which students do not care and often do not understand. (Higher quality writing and reducing plagiarism [Thomas, 2007] can be accomplished by student choice and drafting original essays over extended time with close monitoring by the teacher, by the way.)
And this leads back to my main argument about how to respond to both Diguette and Lahey: As teachers in K-12 and higher education, we have a moral obligation to teach students to be writers and to be ethical. Period.
To be blunt, it doesn’t matter why students struggle with writing or plagiarism at any level of formal education because we must address those issues when students enter our rooms, and we must set aside the expectation that students come to us “fixed.”
In other words, like most of education, learning to write and polishing ones sense of proper citation as well as the ethical demands of expression are life-long journeys, not goals anyone ever finishes.
However, in the current high-stakes accountability era of K-12 education—and the likelihood this is spreading to higher education—I must concur with Smagorinsky:
If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.
Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.
And I will add that if college professors want students who write well and ethically, they (we) must commit to continuing to teach writing throughout any students formal education—instead of lamenting when those students don’t come to us already “fixed.”
Writing and ethical expression have never been addressed in formal schooling in the ways they deserve; both have been mostly about technical details and domains of punishment. The current accountability era has reinforced those traditional failures.
I find Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces both very important and seriously dangerous because they are likely to result in more misguided “blaming the victims” in that too many of the conclusions drawn about why students write poorly and often plagiarize remain focused on labeling teachers and students as flawed.
That students write poorly and often plagiarize is evidence of systemic failures, first and foremost. In order for the outcomes—effective and ethical student writers—to occur, then, we all must change the conditions and expectations of formal education, including understanding that all teachers are obligated to identify our students strengths and needs in order to start there and see how far we can go.
Final Thoughts: Adult Hypocrisy
Many of you may want to stop now. The above is my sanitized response, but it isn’t what I really want to say so here goes.
If you wonder why students write poorly and too often plagiarize, I suggest you stroll into whatever room has the biggest mirror and look for a moment.
As someone who is a writer and editor, I work daily with scholars and other writers who submit work far more shoddy than my students submit.
And as an increasingly old man, I witness the adult world that is nothing like the idealized and ridiculous expectations we level moment by moment on children.
Plagiarism? You too can become vice president of the U.S.!
Lazy student? You can become president of the U.S.!
Now, I absolutely believe we must have high expectations for our students, including a nuanced and powerful expectation for ethical behavior, but many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet. The adults in the U.S. (especially if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are a man) play a much different ethical game than what we tell children.
Children see through such bunkum and that teaches a much different lesson that doesn’t do any of us any good.
For Further Reading
The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?, Thomas Newkirk
LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.
LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3), 59-65, 86
LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About Integration. The English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.
LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English, 27(4), 261-265.
LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.
LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.
LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writing. The English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.
LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.
LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.
LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.
Thomas, P. L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.
Thomas, P. L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.
When Mary Catherine Bradshaw, a teacher since 1984 in Nashville, TN, announced her retirement from public schools, Bradshaw pointed her finger at one major reason, standardized testing:
[S]he says standardized testing is the reason….
Testing, she said, has taken away from instructional time and taken the joy out of learning.
Much has changed, she said, since she took her first job as a teacher at Hillsboro in 1984 when she said she was attracted to its diversity and commitment to academic reputation.
“There was more of a focus on the whole student, the joy of learning, building a community and finding one’s own passion in the midst of the K-12 experience,” she said.
“Now, with the focus on testing, data collection and closing a too narrowly defined gap among learners, I have found myself ready to retire from public education.”
Bradshaw’s concern about the loss of joy due to the central place of testing in education is echoed in a recent statement about PISA rankings , as Peter Wilby details in Academics warn international school league tables are killing ‘joy of learning’:
Now nearly 100 leading educational figures from around the world have issued an unprecedented challenge to Pisa – and what they call “the negative consequences” of its rankings – in a letter to its director, Andreas Schleicher….
“Education policy across the world is being driven by the single aim of pushing up national performance levels on Pisa,” says one signatory, Stephen Ball, professor at London university’s Institute of Education. “It’s having a tremendously distorting effect, right down to the level of classroom teaching.” Another signatory, Sally Tomlinson, research fellow at Oxford university’s education department, says that, though the Pisa league tables appear to be scientifically based, “you really can’t compare a country the size of Liechtenstein with one the size of China and nor can you compare education systems that developed over the years in different political, social and cultural contexts”.
The signatories are particularly concerned about the UK, the US and other countries imitating schools in Asian countries that come high in the Pisa rankings. They are suspicious of Shanghai’s success. “Shanghai’s approach is an incredibly strategic one,” says Ball. “Their students practise the tests. It’s difficult to see what their maths teachers can say to ours except ‘teach to the test’.”
While international rankings based on test scores have influenced public perception of U.S. public education for at least 60+ years (see Hyman Rickover’s books lamenting U.S. rankings, for example), state rankings based on NAEP and SAT/ACT scores have also been central to perception as well as policy, especially since the early 1980s.
While the open letter to Schleicher is a powerful and important challenge to the misleading influence of PISA, the essential problem is high-stakes testing coupled with ranking as well as a persistent misinterpretation of test data (see this excellent examination of how test scores are misunderstood and misused).
As I have addressed often about the SAT (see HERE and HERE), even when a comparison of states appears fair and accurate—South Carolina with Mississippi, for example, since the states share a similar high-poverty demographics of students—the reality is far more complex: MS has a higher SAT average score than SC because the test-taking populations of students are significantly different despite the overall student populations being similar:
Two Southern states, Mississippi and South Carolina, share both a long history of high poverty rates (Mississippi at over 30% and SC at over 25%) and reputations for poor schools systems. Yet, when we compare the SAT scores (pdf) from Mississippi in 2010 (CR 566, M 548, W 552 for a 1,666 total) to SAT scores in SC (CR 484, 495, 468 for a 1,447 total), we may be compelled to charge that Mississippi has overcome a higher poverty rate than South Carolina to achieve, on average, a score 219 points higher.
This conclusion, based on a “few data points”, is factually accurate, but ultimately misleading once we add just one more data point: the percentage of students taking the exam. Just 3% of Mississippi seniors took the exam, compared to 66% in South Carolina. A fact of statistics tells us that SC’s larger percentage taking the exam is much closer to the normal distribution of the all seniors in that state, thus the average must be lower than a uniquely elite population, such as in Mississippi. Here, the statistics determined by the populations taking the exam trump the raw data of test averages, even when placed in the context of poverty. (The truth about failure in US schools)
Even if the open letter about PISA prompts reform by the OECD, we have evidence that the problem will persist. For example, The College Board struggles with both the statistical complexity of SAT data (see here about the recentering) and the misleading use of SAT data to rank states:
Educators, the media and others should:
8.1 Not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on aggregate scores derived from tests
that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students. Do not use aggregate scores as the single measure to
rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts, or states.
And yet, each year when SAT data are released, the media, political leaders, and public school critics rank states and pronounce schools a failure.
The open letter about PISA implores, “Slow down the testing juggernaut,” adding:
OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. As Pisa has led many governments into an international competition for higher test scores, OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world, with no debate about the necessity or limitations of OECD’s goals. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.
Once we apply the brakes, we must then take a close look at the fundamental policy errors—high-stakes standardized testing, labeling, sorting, and ranking—and then abandon those practices for alternatives that address inequity both outside and inside schools and that honor the essential dignity and humanity of students and their teachers.
For Further Reading
More Things Wrong with International Assessments Like PISA, Gene V. Glass
 As full disclosure, I am a signatory on the letter.
A writer’s writer often ignored is James Baldwin, who examines his drive to write in the context of race:
If you felt that it was a white man’s world, what made you think that there was any point in writing? And why is writing a white man’s world?
Because they own the business. Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket. (The Paris Review interview)
Prompted by the announcement from the College Board that the SAT would be revamped in 2016, including dropping the writing section added in 2005, The New York Times has included a Room for Debate on Can Writing Be Assessed?
So, unlike the moment when the SAT added writing (one that heralded only doom for the field of composition), I want to take this moment to examine writing and the teaching of writing because dropping writing from the SAT may prove to be a positive watershed moment for both.
First, let me offer a few points of context.
I am 53 and have been teaching for 31 years, most of that life and career dedicated to writing and teaching writing. I read and write every day—much of that reading and writing is serious in that it is connected to my professional work. But I also read and write extensively for pleasure, including my life as a poet.
Two facts about my writing life: (1) I write because I must, not because I choose to, and (2) I am always learning to write because writing is a journey, not something one can acquire fully or finish.
As well, I strongly embrace the foundational belief that writing is an essential aspect of human liberty, autonomy, agency, and dignity; this is part of the grounding of my work as a critical educator. Living and learning must necessarily include reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing the world (see Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene, just to mention a few).
Writing is also integral to academics, in terms of learning and scholarship. Writing is part of the learning process, but it is also a primary vehicle for scholarly expression.
Next, considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardized the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.
Adding writing to the SAT in 2005, then, was one of several powerful contexts that have seriously crippled the teaching of writing in formal education; those forces include also:
- A historical and lingering conflating of “teaching grammar” (teaching correctness) with teaching writing.
- The entire accountability era begun in the early 1980s (see Applebee and Langer and Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?).
All three of the above fail the fundamental value in writing because they distract from the process and act of writing as well as misread writing a a fixed skill that can be attained at some designated point along the formal education continuum.
As the Faculty Director of First Year Seminars at my university, I focus primarily on how we address the teaching of writing in those seminars (and throughout the curriculum). That role has highlighted for me a lesson I also learned while teaching high school English for 18 years: Many teachers, including English teachers, do not see themselves as writing teachers and often expect that students should come to their courses already proficient writers.
Essentially, then, using a writing assessment of some sort to identify students as college-ready as writers perpetuates the idea that we can and should have students demonstrating some fixed writing outcomes before we allow them access to higher education; this presumes in some ways that college will not be a place where people can and should learn to write.
In much the same way that the accountability paradigm is misguided in fixating on outcomes over conditions, seeing writing as a measurable skill useful for gatekeeping college entrance shifts our focus away from what experiences students need so that their continual learning to write in college can be better supported.
Yes, student outcomes matter, and samples of student writing in the right contexts may provide some powerful evidence of what students know as writers and what students need as writers. But something in the addition of writing to the 2005 SAT must not be forgotten: One-draft, timed, and prompted writing scored by rubrics, and even by computers, works against the important goals of writing .
Just as grading should be shunned for feedback when teaching writing (see my chapter here), the question is not if writing can be assessed, but how do we insure that all students have access to the common experiences necessary at all point along the formal education experience?
What, then, are those common experiences—and once we implement those, how do we document those experiences in order to support both students having equitable access to higher education and to the continual learning to write that must be central throughout higher education?
Some thoughts on common experiences:
- Rich and multi-genre/media reading experiences that include choice and assigned reading. Students need to develop genre awareness and discipline-specific awareness as readers.
- Rich and multi-genre/media writing experiences that include the following: choice and assigned writing, peer and teacher feedback and conferences, workshop experiences drafting short and extended multi-draft compositions, and discipline-specific writing experiences.
- Analysis of and experiences with a wide range of citation and documentation style sheets for integrating primary and secondary sources in original writing.
- Continual consideration of expectations for writing both in academic/school settings and real world settings—challenging school-based norms such as thesis sentences and template essay formats.
While this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, the point is that instead of seeking ways in which we can assess well test-based writing or continuing to explore tests and metrics that correlate strongly with actual writing proficiencies, we must commit ourselves to all students having the sorts of common experiences with writing necessary to grow as writers—both for their own agency and their academic pursuits.
Finally, if we can commit to these conditions of learning instead of outcomes, we should then find ways to gather artifacts of these common experiences to use instead of metrics as we guide students through—and not gatekeep them from—formal education.
Did what you wanted to write about come easily to you from the start?
I had to be released from a terrible shyness—an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody. (The Paris Review interview)
NOTE: For a historical perspective on teaching writing see selected works by Lou LaBrant.
Maybe we need a Khan Academy video series to help the public in the U.S. understand the term “free.”
When you are driving late at night, and you are in unfamiliar rural America in need of a hotel, you see a relatively rundown hotel with a sign announcing “FREE CABLE!”
Well, of course, if you stop and pay for the room, that cable is not “free” (the honest term would be “included”); the cost of that cable is included in the hotel’s operating expenses, which are covered by the rates charged customers.
You see, nothing is free in the consumer culture of the United States—even for those people who have been demonized as “freeloaders,” those receiving welfare or disability or some other access to funds that the U.S. public has deemed unfair (oddly, that doesn’t seem to apply to the uber-wealthy and their trust funds or inheritances, hmmm). If someone acquires anything in the good ol’ USA, somebody is paying for it (and somebody is profiting), and it is often the person who is told she/he is receiving it for “free.”
So we must be quite concerned about this: College Board Enlists Khan Academy to Provide Free Online SAT Prep.
Which is the Cool Whip on the dung pie being offered by the College Board—and led by David Coleman: New SAT To Bring Back 1600-Point Scale — With Optional Essay.
In short, don’t buy it, and especially important, don’t swallow it.
The 2016 SAT reboot is all nonsense, but as disturbing is the monstrosity that is forming as Common Core (another Coleman creation), the SAT and presumably other parts of the College Board (President and CEO Coleman), Pearson, and Sal Khan join forces like a really bad Hollywood production of Marvel’s The Avengers (wait, that has already happened).
Lest we forget, below are some reminders about Khan Academy, and I can recycle from my latest post on the SAT reboot: “No, it’s all nonsense, believe me. I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”
Ever wonder how you can become an educator, education expert, or education reformer?
Well, since 60 Minutes has bought into the most recent con-du-jour, the Khan Academy, let’s consider how people become educators.
How about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?
“Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.”
Or how about Bill Gates? This one is easy, to become an education expert or education reformer, amass billions of dollars.
And Michelle Rhee? Bypass the education establishment by not receiving any degrees in education, become a leader by entering the classroom through TFA, teach three years, and then attain your credibility by firing teachers and creating an education system built on fraudulent test data.
This brings us back to Sal Khan—whose wikipedia page identifies him as an “American educator.”
Pretty impressive considering he, like Rhee, Duncan, and Gates, has no degrees in education, and like Duncan and Gates, has no experience teaching.
But he got tired of his day job, started tutoring his relatives, made some videos, and now is a full-fledged educator. And according to CBS, he may be the future of education.
I don’t see myself grabbing billions any time soon, or having the connections Duncan and Rhee have to get on the appointment train.
So like Khan, I think I’ll just announce what I am and go from there…
I am a nuclear physicist…
[waits patiently for CBS to call]
Reconsidering the Khan Academy
The discussion of the finer points of mathematics is more akin to the nuanced conversations you may find in a university math department or a scholarly journal. But the source of this controversy is Sal Khan and his Khan Academy—which leads us to our need to pull back from the slope debate and address just why is there a controversy about Khan?
I don’t know Sal Khan, and I recognize the inherent danger in making claims about anyone’s intent. On the surface, Khan’s drive to make educational videos accessible to more people has some elements of equity and social justice that I share, but those stated goals are deeply marred by the fact that the equity gap embedded in all technology appears likely to wipe out any access advantage Khan claims his academy offers.
This leads to one very important point about the Khan Academy: The problems with the Khan Academy are primarily couched in the many distorted and corrosive messages and assumptions that the Khan Academy perpetuates as well as how political, popular, and media responses to the Khan Academy deform the education reform debate. Here are the reasons for the controversy:
• Sal Khan directly and indirectly (through media messages about him and his videos) perpetuates a popular and flawed assumption that effective teaching is a direct and singular extension of content expertise. Khan’s allure is in part built on the misguided view in the U.S. that anyone who can do, can also teach. Khan has neither the expertise nor experience as a teacher to justify the praise and claims made about him or his academy. Khan is a celebrity entrepreneur, not an educator. [If Khan had created a series of free videos showing people how to do surgery, I suspect the response would be different, although the essence of the venture is little different.]
• The videos themselves are nothing more than textbooks, static containers of fixed content. Learning, then, is reduced to the acquisition of static knowledge. The videos reinforce that content is value-neutral (it isn’t), and the videos allow teaching and learning to remain within a transmissional paradigm that is neither new nor what is best for the purposes of universal public education in a free society. Whether a video, a textbook, or a set of standards, fixed content removes the agency from the teacher and the learner about what content matters. While the videos are offered as substitutes for lectures, Khan and those who support the academy appear unaware that even lectures in classrooms are reinforced by discussions—content is presented and then negotiated among teachers and students.
• Inherent in the allure of the Khan Academy is the naive faith that technology is somehow offering teaching and learning something new, something revolutionary. The blunt truth, however, is that technology has been heralded for that quality for a century now, and it simply isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Khan’s videos are no more revolutionary than the radio, TV, VHS player, or the laser disc. Technology is often, as with the Khan Academy, a tragic waste of time and energy that misleads us away from the very human endeavors of teaching and learning. Technology at its worst is when it further isolates the learner and learning—already a central problem with traditional classroom practices.
• Sal Khan as a celebrity and self-proclaimed educator feeds into and perpetuates the cultural belief that education is somehow not a scholarly field and that education is a failure because of the entrenched nature of the “education establishment.” Khan as an outsider hasn’t thought of anything that hasn’t already been considered by the many and varied scholars and practitioners in education. Does any field benefit from ideas and practices outside that field? Yes, that is not the issue. But Khan is but one of many of the leading voices heralded as educational revolutionaries (think Gates ad Rhee) who have either no or very little experience or expertise in education. The ugly truth is that if education is failing, that failure is likely because the scholars and practitioners in education have never had the primary voice in how education should be implemented. The great irony is that education scholars and practitioners (notably critical ones) are the true outsiders of the “education establishment.” If you want to know something about math and how to teach it, talk with my high school math teacher first, and then you may be able to decide how valuable Khan’s work is.
• The Khan Academy reinforces the misguided faith we have in a silver-bullet answer to complex educational problems. Education in the U.S. is not suffering from a lack of packaged content (in fact, our commitment to textbooks is one of the major problems in public education); education is burdened by social and education inequities that are far more complex than substituting classroom lectures with videos anyone can access (if that person has internet access and the hardware to view the videos). It is easier and less painful to praise the essentially empty solution Khan is offering than to confront the serious failures of inequity remaining in U.S. society and public education.
Without the fanfare and hyperbole, Khan’s quest to make content accessible online may have some real value—if Khan is willing to bring into that plan the expertise of education scholars and practitioners. Khan’s plan would certainly benefit from a strong dose of humility; a first step to real learning is to acknowledge what one does not know.
But Khan and his academy are likely doomed because of the feeding frenzy around him. The public and media have an unquenchable thirst for rugged individualism, a thirst that is blind, deaf, and ultimately corrosive; and Khan appears to present a simplistic message about how to save a very important but complicated public institution.
The controversy about Khan isn’t about the definition of slope, but the slippery slope of believing the hype because that is easier to swallow than the truth.
Note: See the critique by Christopher Danielson and Michael Paul Goldenberg for a more detailed explanation of problems I have identified above.