Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton

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Questions for the P&C about School Closure, Takeover

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).

Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:

How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?

Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?

Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.

At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.

Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”

As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.

But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.

So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:

  • Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
  • Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
  • And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.

This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:

But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.

SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.

For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?

Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.

Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”

How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.

Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.

As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.

Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.

So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?

The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:

Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.

And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.

That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.

Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.

One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:

Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?

The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.

You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.

And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.

The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?

The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.

Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”

That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.

And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.

Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.

Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.

Dear EWA:

Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.

Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.

Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.

Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.

Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.

Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.

I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.

As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.

We both can and should do better.

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

[original unedited submission below]

Former Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley established South Carolina as one of the first states to move education reform to the top of any state’s agenda. That journey for our state is now three decades-plus old, and political leaders, the media, and the public remain unsatisfied with our public schools.

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era behind us and the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now returning a great deal of power to states for school reform, The State has called for SC to recommit to accountability, warning: “[R]emoving that oversight provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.”

My entire 34 years as an educator in SC has been during the accountability era in which the state has changed standards and high-stakes tests five or six times each. While I agree with The State’s editorial that the transition from NCLB to ESSA is a great opportunity, I caution about doubling down on accountability.

First, SC political leaders, the media, and the public must finally confront that our public schools are a reflection of the tremendous burden of poverty on children and families in our state. The schools along the Corridor of Shame (the I-95 corridor) as well as other pockets of high poverty across the state present us with a very disturbing lesson that school reform alone has never worked, and will likely never work.

Across the U.S., in fact, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing has failed in both fifty different experiments and the more recent national effort with Common Core. The quality or even presence of standards and high-stakes tests has never produced higher student achievement or closed the so-called achievement gap between wealthy and poor students or racial minorities and whites.

The greatest education challenge, then, facing our state is addressing poverty and racism in our society so that education reform has a chance to succeed. Without adopting policy that deals directly with stable jobs with adequate pay and benefits, healthcare, childcare, and an equitable criminal justice system, our schools are destined to continue to struggle.

Next, we need to reconsider entirely education reform—not based on accountability but on equity of opportunity.

Labeling and ranking our schools—whether we use more than test scores or not—has been harmful, and it is past time to consider another process. As Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, and researcher Gerald Bracey have argued often, educational rankings tend to reveal more about conditions outside of the school’s control than about the quality of education. Overwhelmingly in all types of educational rankings the greatest predictor of high or low rankings is wealth or poverty.

However, The State actually hits on a better alternative: “But the focus must remain on the core function of the schools: providing all children in this state the opportunity to receive a decent education, of the sort that will allow them to become self-supporting, productive, taxpaying citizens.”

Equity of opportunity must replace accountability in SC—although this doesn’t mean lowering expectations or absolving schools or teachers from their responsibilities to students and the state.

What I propose is transparency about the opportunities to learn that all students are receiving in the context of social programs that help every student enter the doors of those schools on much more equal footing than they have historically or currently.

Those equitable opportunities must include for all students access to experienced and certified teachers, open door policies for challenging courses and programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and equitably funded schools and facilities across the state. As well, we must end inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes, tracking, and harmful current policies such as third-grade retention based on reading scores.

But grading and ranking schools must end as well.

A hard reality of teaching is that we can never guarantee outcomes; students ultimately, if given the conditions in their lives and schools to succeed, are responsible for learning. Schools and teachers are responsible for making that learning possible.

Accountability has not worked for thirty-plus years. The hard question now is: Have the adults learned that lesson and are they prepared to try something different?

See Also

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice

Christina Duncan Evans argues that the high-stakes testing opt-out movement “ignores a major function of testing,” which she identifies as: “A major reason we use standardized tests is to make the case that there’s large-scale educational injustice in our nation.”

As an advocate for educational equity and social justice, Evans explains:

States don’t have a very good track record of providing equitable access to education to all of their students, and the federal government should ensure that American school quality is consistent. This has made me an advocate of standardized testing, following the logic that we can’t solve achievement gaps unless we measure them first.

Before examining this commitment to standardized testing (also found among civil rights organizations), I want to highlight that public education and state government have had a long history, continuing today, of failing miserably black, brown, and poor children and adults.

The evidence of lingering race and class inequity in the U.S. is staggering, and that inequity is too often replicated and perpetuated in public schooling—through inequitable access to rich curriculum and experienced, qualified teachers, for example.

As well, there is a troubling aspect to the opt-out movement along with the backlash against Common Core; as Andre Perry states, reinforcing Evans:

Take it from black and brown children who are used to being tested. Students will overcome. However, privileged adults who aren’t used to being tested may never stop crying.

The opt-out and Common Core backlash have exposed an unintended lesson about U.S. public education and society: As long as punitive and biased practices impact mostly or exclusively black, brown, and poor children (think “grit” and “no excuses”), the mainstream world of white privilege and wealth remains silent.

However, Perry also concedes that “having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students.”

In other words, and this is my main concern, the accountability era over the past thirty years—based significantly on standards and high-stakes testing—has not confronted and eroded race and class inequity, but in fact, and notably because of the central roles of standardized testing, race and class inequity has become even more entrenched in our schools and society.

Standardized testing remains biased by race, class, and gender, and thus, continues a warped tradition in the U.S. of masking bias as science; consider IQ testing and the current claims about “grit.”

High-stakes, standardized tests are, as Audre Lorde stresses, “the master’s tools.”

For those of us seeking educational and social equity and justice, then, we must heed Lorde’s call:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change….

The essential flaw with continuing to cling to high-stakes standardized testing is two-fold: (1) the tests are race, class, and gender biased, and (2) the demand that we raise test scores keeps all the attention on outcomes (and not the policies and practices that create the inequity).

As such, the demand remains that black, brown, and poor children (and adults) are themselves flawed and must be “fixed” (see Paul Gorski on “blaming the victim”).

This second flaw is also addressed by Lorde: “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”

Testing is never any better than a proxy, a representation of something else (student learning, teacher quality, school quality), but testing is never a valid proxy for equity or justice—always instead a fatal distraction. As I have argued before:

Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

The accountability movement and the increased stakes linked to standardized testing have focused the gaze even more narrowly on individual children and educators. That tunnel-vision allows the privileged to avoid addressing social and educational inequity because marginalized groups are forced to work at the “master’s concerns,” not their own.

If we are determined to find data to highlight educational inequity so that we can address it, let us turn that gaze to the inequity of opportunity. For example, Rebecca Klein reports:

In Mississippi’s Carroll County school district, there are no advanced placement courses, no foreign language classes and not enough textbooks for children to take home at night. Until last year, students on the high school football team had to change clothes in a makeshift room that previously functioned as a chicken coop….

Schools in Mississippi are provided with some of the lowest levels of state and local funding in the nation, according to two reports released simultaneously Monday detailing disparities in school resources around the country. For most of the past 10 years, the state has failed to live up to its own law requiring certain funding levels for schools.

Unfortunate circumstances like the ones in Carroll County can be seen across the country, say the reports from the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal and advocacy group.

The abundance of evidence of social and educational inequity is overwhelming, and continuing to mis-measure it through relentless and punitive standardized testing is inexcusable.

Lorde concludes:

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Advocating for social justice in our schools must include the choice not to bend to high-stakes standardized testing, but to unmask “raising test scores” as the “master’s tools”—and then to demand we turn our gaze to the inequity of opportunities condemning another generation of children to the “master’s concerns,” and not their own.