The Invisible Politics of White Wealth

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.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Those who control wealth, politics, and the media have the ability to maintain public attention on where the power elites point their finger.

Trumplandia now has decided that colleges are biased against white students despite college attendance and especially graduation remaining relatively skewed in favor of whites.

The Trump administration has resurrected the affirmative action mantra we witnessed under George W. Bush, who attended an elite university as a legacy and then somehow enrolled in graduate school after being only a C student as an undergrad.

Beware, then, of what the wealthy white elites want us to worry about.

And worry instead about what they are not pointing to, the invisible politics of white wealth.

Is a blank canvas blank? Or white? Or even art?

Consider the examples below.

White males on average score higher than anyone on the SAT, both the math and verbal sections. College admissions remains powerfully influenced by the bias of college admission exams, which are racially biased and greater reflections of privilege than merit.

Testing is a tool to render white wealth privilege invisible.

As noted about W. Bush, when white wealthy men attack affirmative action, they are trying to divert attention away from white wealth affirmative action, such as legacy admissions and the good-old-boy system.

Legacy admissions is a policy to render white wealth privilege invisible.

The current controversy over Colin Kaepernick being too political for a position on any NFL team parallels the affirmative action distraction under Trump. Kaepernick’s silent protests are labeled “political” while the wealthy white owners’ actual political donations and endorsements (and let’s not ignore Tom Brady’s cozying up to Trump) somehow are not discounting politics.

Isolating Kaepernick’s protests as “political” is a strategy to render actual political financing by wealthy whites invisible.

But possibly the ugliest version of this lies in how we find ourselves with Trump as president and the specter of Mark Zuckerberg as a future president.

In recent history, one example is Bill Gates, who masterminded how to mask wealth and privilege as innovation, entrepreneurship, and merit. While there are problems with his work, Malcolm Gladwell offered an unmasking of wealth and success mainly coming from effort and genius that speaks to the Gates-Trump-Zuckerberg effect.

Just a bit of critical unpacking exposes the myth of Gates and Trump being brilliant businessmen; in fact, they have squandered wealth and corporate success often.

It has been the invisible power of white wealth that has buoyed them, and thus, especially with Trump, it is essential for them to maintain that privilege by keeping it invisible.

Fanning the flames of white resentment over the false narrative that racial minorities have any sort of advantage in the U.S. justifies the label “deplorables.”

This is the most corrosive sort of politics, a daily politics of of lies and hatred grounded in whiteness—the invisible thing in the U.S. that defines us.


See Also

America Has Never Had A Merit-Based System For College Attendance, Andre Perry

Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60

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Reader 22 May 2017 [UPDATED]: Connecting Dots

Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views

See: UPDATE 21 (20 May 2017): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Minorities Who ‘Whiten’ Résumés More Likely to Get Interview, Michael Harriot

“Whitening” is an all-encompassing term for when prospective employees scrub their résumés of anything that might indicate their race. Applicants with cultural names will sometimes use their initials. Community or professional work with African-American fraternities, sororities or other organizations are deleted. One student omitted a prestigious scholarship he was awarded because he feared it might reveal his race.

Although the practice sounds demeaning and reductive in the year 2017, apparently it works. In one study, researchers sent out whitened résumés and nonwhitened résumés to 1,600 employers. Twenty-five percent of black applicants received callbacks when their résumés were whitened, compared with 10 percent of the job seekers who left their ethnic details on the same résumés.

The results were the same for employers who advertised themselves as “equal opportunity employers” or said that “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.


Experts: Conflicts over Confederate names and symbols likely to continue, Paul Hyde

But Thomas said school administrators should encourage student debate over historical figures such as Wade Hampton — as an important lesson in democracy.

“If we really think that public education is to prepare people to live in a democracy, children need to have experiences with democratic processes,” Thomas said. “I think this specific protest should be seen as an opportunity for students to see what the democratic process looks like, with everybody’s voice mattering. Principals and superintendents of public schools — they have incredibly hard jobs — but they are the people who have to show students what moral courage is. If administrators and teachers can’t show moral courage, how do we expect our children to?”

See: Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document


When Standardized Tests Don’t Count | Just Visiting, John  Warner

And yet, when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable populations within Charleston County Schools, these standardized assessments provide a rational for top-down oversight and control.

This is entirely common and predictable. “Accountability” is often weaponized against those without the means to defend themselves.

I have no wish to upend the academic culture of the Citadel over their terrible CLA scores, but maybe some of those who are willing to give our elite storied places a pass can extend the same spirit to those who have no such protections.

See Are America’s top schools ‘elite’ or merely ‘selective?’

Why The New Sat Is Not The Answer, Akil Bello and James Murphy

If anything, the discord between them is likely to grow as the College Board pursues an equitable society using a test that is designed to mark and promote distinctions.

For all the positive changes the College Board has made, the new SAT shouldn’t be counted among them. It is a test, not a solution.

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse, Mike Taylor

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

  • Goodhart’s Law is most succinct: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • Campbell’s Law is the most explicit: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
  • The Cobra Effect refers to the way that measures taken to improve a situation can directly make it worse.

America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality, Jeff Guo

According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

UNEQUAL ENFORCEMENT: How policing of drug possession differs by neighborhood in Baton Rouge

BR inequity

Elite or Selective?: Reconsidering Who We Educate and How

Sharde Miller’s California teen describes his road from Compton to Harvard University offers a powerful subtext about the American Dream as well as the enduring belief in education as the “great equalizer,” embodied by Elijah Devaughn Jr.:

Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades….

“Getting accepted into a prestigious university like Harvard, I think it means the world,” Devaughn said. “It means God is able. It means that hard work pays off. It means that, you know, struggles end.”

What if we unpack the label of “prestigious” by making an important caveat: Is Harvard University elite or selective?

As a point of reference, over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability in public education, schools have been annually labeled as excelling and failing; however, once we look beneath the A-F rankings, a strong and consistent correlation persists between schools identified as excelling or failing and the socio-economic status of the students [1] (as well as the racial and language demographics).

Consider also that for every year of the SAT being administered, average scores have fallen perfectly in correlation with parental income and parental years of education [2].

My university has begun gathering data to analyze our impact on students. The university is selective, having high standards for the academic backgrounds and achievements of students.

Some initial data are telling. When students with high preparation are compared to students with low preparation, extrapolating over four years of college, high preparation students are more successful and the gap with low preparation students widens during years 2 and 3 and then never closes by year 4 (year 1 and year 4 gaps are about the same).

If we persist in suggesting that education is the great equalizer (despite ample evidence education does not, in fact, equalize) and a foundational mechanism of the American Dream, we must reconsider how and why we identify any schools as “prestigious.”

Alexander W. Astin’s Are You Smart Enough? seeks to examine if our prestigious and excelling schools are elite or merely selective. Astin exposes part of the problem with labeling colleges, for example, as “prestigious”:

The “quality” or “excellence” of a college or university is thus judged on the basis of the average test score of its entering students, rather than on how well it educates them once they enroll.

What is lost in the rush to ascribe success and failure to schools is, as Astin argues, the essential charge of any formal schooling:

On the contrary, the quality of our national talent pool depends heavily on how well colleges and university develops the students’ capacities during the college years. And this mean all students.

And thus, Astin asserts: “More parents need to be asking, ‘Why should an educational system invest the least in the students who may need the most in higher education?'”

Here, then, is the dirty little secret: “Prestigious school” (K-12 as well as colleges/universities) is a veneer for “selective,” not “elite” in terms of the educational impact but in terms of the conditions at those schools.

Public universities are less selective than private liberal arts colleges, and the former experience is distinct from the latter in, for example, faculty/student ratios, class size.

In other words, more academically successful students tend to be from more affluent and well educated parents, and then are afforded higher education experiences that are identifiably superior to relatively less successful students from lower levels of affluence and education.

Reconsidering how we label schools, the “selective” versus “elite” divide, is a first step in seeking ways to turn a tarnished myth (“education is the great equalizer”) into a reality.

Too often “prestigious” and “elite” are code for “selective,” praising a college/university for gatekeeping, and not educating; too often “excellent” and “failing” are code for student demographics, ranking K-12 schools for proximity, and not educating.

Testing, ranking, and accountability in the U.S. have entrenched social and educational inequity because, as Astin confronts, “there are two very different uses for educational assessment: (a) to rank, rate, compare, and judge the performance of different learners and (b) to enhance the learning process.”

We have chosen the former, pretending as well that those metrics reflect mostly merit although they are overwhelming markers of privilege.

Let’s return to Devaughn as a rags-to-riches story.

Late in the article we learn Devaughn attended private school before his acceptance to Harvard—again bringing us back to the issue of opportunity and what we are learning at my university about well prepared students versus less prepared students.

Devaughn’s story should not be trivialized, but carefully unpacked, it does not prove what I think it intended to show. The American Dream and claims education is the great equalizer are, in fact, deforming myths.

Race, gender, and the socioeconomic factors of homes and communities remain resilient causal factors in any person’s opportunities and success:

All schools at any level must re-evaluate who has access to the institution, and why, and then focus on what impact the educational experience has on those students. Therein must be the evidence for determining excellence and prestige.


[1] See here and here for examples in South Carolina.

[2] See The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

9 June 2016 Reader: School Choice, GPA v. SAT/ACT

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?”

See Also

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

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

Study: Colleges Put Students Into Remedial Classes Who Don’t Need Them

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.”

Developmental education and college readiness at the University of Alaska

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.

Former College Board Exec: New SAT Hastily Thrown Together; Students: March SAT Recycled in June

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.”

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

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.

UPDATED: Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

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 TimesAs 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 [1].

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 [2].

[1] 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

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

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. ([1817], 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)

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

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.

“Students Today…”

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

On Children and Childhood

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

References

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 IntegrationThe English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writingElementary English27(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 writingThe 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.