Judicial Negligence Compounds Political Negligence in South Carolina

Conservative politics as a very thin veneer for racism and class warfare has long characterized the South, including South Carolina, regardless of party affiliation—once Democratic and now the same sort of recalcitrant Republican.

Strom Thurmond personified this ugly fact of my home state—him a brash racist and among the now seemingly endless line of powerful white men who also viewed and treated women as subhuman as well. The current disaster of Roy Moore stands as yet more of that same, embodying a crass blend of political, judicial, and morally bankrupt popular in the South, the Bible Belt.

The twenty-first century, regretfully, has not exorcised these ghosts in the machine, as SC remains nearly a cartoon version of Southern stereotypes.

SC public schools (and public universities, in fact) exist in 2017 as a bold middle finger to everything promised by a democratic nation. But despite the political rhetoric, SC has failed its public schools; public schools have not failed our state, whose political leaders care none at all about poor, black, or brown children being currently (and historically) mis-served by K-12 education.

Political negligence of public schools—or more accurately, negligence of public schools that serve the most vulnerable children and communities in the state—is one of the perverse traditions that defines SC.

That tradition has a willing accomplice in the judicial negligence of the state as well. Cindi Scoppe explains:

In the three years since the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had to provide a decent education to all children, one justice wrote in this month’s final chapter of the quarter-century-old school adequacy case, “we have had the benefit of seeing the defendants make steady progress toward remedying their failure to provide our state’s children with a minimally adequate education.”

Particularly encouraging, he wrote, is the fact that the state has “recently come to realize that merely pouring more money into an outmoded system will not lead to success.”

Popularized as the Corridor of Shame, political and judicial negligence actually thrives in pockets all over SC, not just along the I-95 corridor that does in many ways bisect the more affluent midlands and upper state from the crippling rural poverty dominating much of the lower state except for pockets of affluence in coastal havens for the wealthy and the riches of tourism.

The conservative ideology driving political negligence has withstood the slow drag of the courts in SC, which has now fallen lockstep into that same sterile argument about “pouring more money into an outmoded system”—as if SC has even flooded public institutions with money.

Political and judicial negligence in SC—a microcosm of the same negligence nationally—remains entrenched in commitments to ideology over evidence, hard truths neither political leadership nor judicial pronouncements will admit.

First, and foremost, one hard truth is that public schools in SC are mostly labeled failures or successes based on the coincidence of what communities and students those schools serve. Schools serving affluent (and mostly white) communities and students are framed as “good” schools while schools serving poor (and often black and brown while also over-serving English language learners and students with special needs) communities and students are framed as “bad” or “failing.”

This political lie is grounded in the three-decades political charade called education reform—a bureaucratic nightmare committed to accountability, standards, and testing as well as a false promise that in-school only reform could somehow overcome the negative consequences of social inequity driven by systemic racism, classism, and sexism.

The ironic and cruel lesson of education reform has been that education is not the great equalizer.

Education reform is nothing more than a conservative political fetish, a gross good-ol’-boy system of lies and deception.

Second, and in most ways secondary, another hard truth is that while education is not the great equalizer, public schooling tends to reflect and then perpetuate the inequities that burden the lives of vulnerable children.

In-school only reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing fails by being both in-school only (no education reform will rise about an absence of social/policy reform that addresses racism and poverty) and mechanisms of inequity themselves.

Affluent and white students are apt to experience a higher quality of formal schooling than black, brown, and poor students, who tend to be tracked early and often into reduced conditions that include test-prep, “basic” courses, and teachers who are early career and often un-/under-certified.

Nested in this hard truth is that much of accountability-based education reform depends on high-stakes standardized testing, which is itself a deeply flawed and biased instrument. Tests allow political negligence since data appear to be objective and scientific; in fact, standardized testing remains race, class, and gender biased.

Like school quality, test scores are mostly a reflection of non-academic factors.

Ultimately, SC’s children and then the state itself are being cheated by a failure to admit hard truths. I agree, then, with the big picture conclusion drawn by Scoppe:

It was never clear to me whether our constitution requires the state to provide a good education to all children, or simply to operate public schools. What was always more than clear was that it is the job of the Legislature to provide an education to every child in this state. And that it is insane — and morally indefensible — not to provide a decent education to all children. What was always more than clear was that it is up to the Legislature not only to provide the funding but also, as Justices Beatty and Toal and Kay Hearn always emphasized, to make sure the districts are organized appropriately and school officials have the right powers and duties and we have the right laws about what is taught and how it is taught and that the problems are corrected when the schools don’t deliver.

This is a moral imperative about children, about human dignity and agency.

Let me end with the ignored but obvious hard truth: Education funding matters, but doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity.

Millions and millions of tax dollars in SC have been squandered on ever-new standards and ever-new tests; where is the political and judicial rhetoric about that? SC for decades now has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on school report card that have accomplished nothing except demonizing schools that happen to serve poor and black/brown children.

SC must seek instead the political will to implement first social policy that addresses the scar of poverty and racism in our state. Concurrent with that, education reform must end its affair with accountability and begin a journey committed to education equity.

Our children deserve more than the accidents of their births, and then, as a people, we owe every child an equitable and challenging education that invites them into an honest attempt at democracy and freedom.

Political and judicial negligence is inexcusable, but remains a SC tradition.

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Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

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.

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

Measuring Proficient Teachers Codifies Bad Teaching

Maja Wilson and Alfie Kohn have found themselves in a problematic minority during the accountability era dedicated to standards, high-stakes testing, and the ever-present rubric.

Rubrics, they argue, ultimately fail complex human behaviors such as writing. While rubrics facilitate statistical aspects of measuring human behaviors (such as teaching and learning), by doing so, they also tend to erode the quality of the very behaviors being measured.

As a writing teacher, I can confirm Wilson’s and Kohn’s critiques that student writing conforming to a rubric and thus deemed “proficient” or “excellent” can be and often is quite bad writing. Rubric-based labels such as “proficient” reflect compliance to the rubric, not writing quality.

Wilson, in fact, has demonstrated this by revising a professional and beautiful piece of writing by Sandra Cisneros so that is conforms to a computer-graded system’s criteria for high-quality writing. The result was more than disturbing with the revised work substantially worse but better correlated with what the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has deemed “good.”

While Wilson’s experiment focuses on computer-graded writing, the basis of that is having a generic rubric to determine writing quality, and thus, here we begin to investigate why rubric-driven evaluation of complex human behavior always fails:

  • Rubrics reduce the unpredictable to the prescribed.
  • To be practical, rubrics often attempt to be generic enough to cover huge categories—such as writing and teaching—and thus failing the reality that poetry writing is significantly distinct from journalism or that teaching second grade is significantly distinct from teaching high school physics.
  • When rubrics use terminology that is broad enough to address those varieties, they are useless due to being too vague; when rubrics use terminology that is specific, they are useless because they are unduly prescriptive. If the learning objective is jumping rope, if proficiency is “students jump well,” we have no idea what “well” means, and if proficiency is “students jump 10 times without missing,” that 10 becomes all that matters. In other words, in both cases, complying to the rubric ultimately supersedes the actual jumping rope.
  • Rubrics replace substantive feedback conducive to learning, and in fact, stagnates learning and reduces all assessment as summative.
  • As with high-stakes testing, high-stakes rubrics connected to course grades and/or as part of state accountability systems carry the weight of authority—shifting that authority from teachers and students to the rubric itself and the bureaucracy behind it.

So this brings me back to South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET).

SC’s version of the NIET rubric, as I discussed, is marred by being unmanageable due to its length and inadequate due to the inordinate amount of terminology that is too vague (and again, if we address that vagueness, we still have a flawed instrument that is all prescription).

While going through a first session of training in the rubric, I witnessed the greatest problem with using generic rubrics to determine teacher quality: a very bad literacy lesson was pronounced at the high end of “proficient” by how it conformed to the rubric, but the lesson was in fact terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive—as well, it likely eroded significantly the students’ passion for and interest in reading and literacy.

Adopting and implementing a new teacher quality rubric, however, have been committed primarily to training those who will evaluate teachers so that the assessors are familiar with the rubric and the endorsed process; and then, above all else, a central goal is to produce inter-rater reliability with a rubric that NIET and others have already deemed valid.

In other words, this is a statistical enterprise—not an adventure in teaching and learning.

Lost in the technocratic orgy about validity, reliability, and the all-things scientific, we have made the mistake confronted by John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

The irony here, of course, is that Dewey is one of the seminal voices for education being scientific; however, I cannot imagine his expecting this reductive outcome.

All aspects of teaching and learning are poisoned by our misguided pursuit of a very narrow version of “scientific” that has been subsumed by the bureaucratic and turned into pseudo-science.

What avail is it to label a teacher proficient, if in the process the teaching is terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive, if in the process the students are rendered lifeless and uninspired as well?

Education Reform and the Eternal Failure of the Unimaginative Bureaucratic Mind

In the 2006 film Idiocracy, the U.S. five centuries into the future is suffering crippling crop shortages due to a dust bowl that the main character (a survivor of suspended animation from the present of the film’s opening, around 2005), Private Joe Bauers, discovers is human-made since the nation of idiots has been irrigating those crops with a Gatorade-like sports drink.

This science fiction satire has experienced a resurgence due to many pundits associating the rise of Trump with the film’s extrapolation about humanity becoming more and more a nation of idiots, but for those of us in education, Idiocracy speaks to the most recent era of education reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing.

The human-made dust bowl is the result of an initial false analogy: If the sports drink, they reasoned, is a powerful fluid for human hydration, then it must be an ideal solution to struggling crops needing hydration.

If we unpack this idiotic logic a bit more, we must add that even the initial idea—sports drinks filled with sugar and salt as powerful hydration fluids—is mostly a false belief based on a great deal of clever marketing and gullibility in the consumers.

Before Bauer forces this future of idiots to reimagine their problem in order to rethink their solution, the status quo of hydrating crops with sports drink continues along with the puzzlement among the idiots about why nothing is improving.

So let’s do a little thought experiment with that film in mind.

First, consider this from Rebecca Smith:

In the late 1800s, the United States was feeling the impact of the industrial revolution. Influenced by Taylorism and the desire for scientific management, statistics and measurement were evolving as objective methods used to evaluate and systematically organize information. Education was swept up in the measurement and statistical movement. Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where ‘knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity’ (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision….

To [Thordike], the connection between science, measurement, and human behavior was clear (Cremin, 1964). Lewis Terman published the Binet-Simon IQ Test in 1916; this test provided the context for psychologists to assess abilities, explain differences in students’ performance, and improve schools (Chapman, 1988). Standardized academic tests measure performance in the areas of handwriting, maths, and reading. Data from these tests offered superintendents, teachers, parents, or pupils ‘guidance in many different sorts of decisions and actions’ including ‘the fate of pupils, the value of methods, and the achievement of school systems’ (Thorndike, 1918, pp. 19, 22). Although Thorndike used the term ‘product’ instead of ‘data’, concepts such as rigor, reliability, and precision became part of educational discourse, measuring unseen changes in human beings. Intelligence had become objectified in numbers. The quantification of children’s intelligence, demographic characteristics, and school performance resulted in columns of numbers compared, contrasted, and evaluated in the United States. As the scientific gaze turned towards children, they became classified, compared, and evaluated according to numbers (Cannella, 1997). (pp. 3, 4)

Just a decade after this film and almost a century after Thorndike, in 2016, consider this:

In the latest international comparison of student achievement, public schools in the United States ranked no better than 24th in the world. But the public schools of Massachusetts had few peers.

Perhaps Massachusetts has something to teach the rest of the nation.

Well, unless you listen to Massachusetts, where researchers determined that two-thirds of the state’s effort at education reform has been a failure:

The evidence we have gathered strongly suggests that two of the three major “reforms” launched in the wake of the 1993 law — high-stakes testing and Commonwealth charter schools — have failed to deliver on their promises.

On the other hand, the third major component of the law, providing an influx of more than $2 billion in state funding for our schools, had a powerfully positive impact on our classrooms. But we will show that, after two decades, the formula designed to augment and equalize education funding is no longer up to the task.

So what we have here is an idiocracy of education reform, a failure of imagination to reconsider the problem and then to rethink solutions.

The U.S. need not idealize Finland or Massachusetts—or let’s not forget in 1962, it was the Swiss.

And the relentless commitment to accountability based on ever-new standards and ever-new tests is no different than the idiots continuing to hydrate crops with sports drink.

Like sports drinks, testing is inherently a sham, and our refusal to step away from a paradigm that has never worked despite countless efforts at making it work is our own version of a very real and current Idiocracy.

On Education and Credentialing: “Mak[ing] a Straight-cut Ditch of a Free, Meandering Brook”

“What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asked in his journal, answering: “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

As a former high school English/ELA teacher for 18 years, as I sat in the first of two training sessions yesterday, this from Thoreau came to mind.

Over the past 15 years, I have been a teacher educator, now a full and tenured professor in my university’s Education Department. Yet, from 9-4 yesterday, as representatives from the state department of education trained our full-time and adjunct faculty on the new South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) standards, I felt more like an elementary student because the so-called training was mostly condescending and entirely unprofessional.

But the unprofessional, I regret to acknowledge, is business as usual for teacher education, as a faux-field in higher education, and for K-12 teaching, a faux-profession.

Some of my doctoral courses for an EdD in curriculum and instruction covered educational leadership. In that work, I was always fascinated by what the research often describes as three types of leaders—authoritarian, authoritarian-light, and collegial.

The most chilling of the three is the authoritarian-light, which is a style that includes finding strategies that manipulate stakeholder buy-in by making it appear the stakeholders are making decisions even though they are actually being coerced to comply with mandates about which they have no real choice.

This is the process I suffered through yesterday as bureaucrats from the state department assured a room of professors and practitioners that the new state rubric for teacher evaluation is backed by research and that we already know and do everything therein.

Again, as a former English/ELA teacher, I am struggling with describing the experience as Orwellian, a Kafkan nightmare of reason, or both.

Training Teacher Educators to Train Teachers to Train Students

Some of the early session dynamics are worth noting upfront.

As part of the authoritarian-light strategies, the facilitators had lots of group work with large sticky paper and markers. Much laughing and chatting included references to the numerous teacher evaluation systems SC has adopted over the past three decades and how everyone in the room knew all this stuff.

We all shared our very E.D. Hirsch moment of knowing all the acronyms for the four or five systems many of us in the room have experienced.

And then the dramatic kicker: But this new rubric and system is different, better, and supported by research!

[Let’s note that no time was taken to acknowledge that this same framing occurred each time all the former systems were introduced.]

In passing, the credibility of the rubric was linked to the fact that the rubric includes footnotes (so do Ann Coulter’s books, by the way) to the incredible work of Danielson and Marzano!

However, as I found the rubric online, I noticed that neither were in the 23 footnotes.

[Let’s note that no time was taken to examine very powerful and credible counter-evidence refuting the credibility of the cult of Danielson and the cult of Marzano. Also, the cult of Hattie is in footnote 7, a hint to the hokum therein.]

Not to belabor the seven-hour training session, but a few additional points:

  • This rubric is highly touted, yet when we raised concerns about vague terms such as “most” and “some” to distinguish between “proficient” and “needs improvement,” that conversation was mostly brushed aside, except that we discovered if you look under “Description of Qualifying Measures” on page 8, you learn that “most” means “some” (though “some remains undefined). By any fair evaluation of this rubric, it fails miserably the basic parameters of high-quality rubrics (interestingly something I teach in my methods courses).
  • And then there is the rubric’s enormity: 404 bullets over 4 categories and nine pages of small Helvetica font. To navigate these bullets (and we were warned repeatedly to do so “holistically and not as a checklist” as we walked through the bullets as a checklist and not holistically) with any care at all requires nearly three hours for just one lesson, assuming about 2-minutes per bullet. Not only does the rubric fail basic expectations for clearly defined terms (just what the hell are “powerful ideas”?), but also it fails for being incredibly unwieldy and overwhelming.
  • Throughout the training, two key points were emphasized: mastery and teacher impact on student learning. As I will discuss below, we were given no opportunity to explore the serious problems with both, and no time was spent highlighting how the training itself practiced faux-science in the context of each.
  • As we explored the rubric, as well, the facilitators unpacked key factors that are not expressed in the rubric itself. Even though the language of the rubric under “proficient” references the teacher, the facilitators noted often that to move from “needs improvement” to “proficient” was dependent on students demonstrating mastery (showing “proficient”), not teacher behaviors (merely “needs improvement”).

To clarify how problematic this training proved to be, let me offer briefly the last activity, our viewing a lesson and watching the facilitators model how to use the rubric.

The lesson was a ninth-grade ELA lesson on inference, and the class was a “no excuses” charter school with black and brown children all adorned in matching purple shirts.

Here is the short version: the lesson, we were told, met the upper range of “proficient.”

Yet, what the activity highlighted was quite different than the intent.

The lesson was weak, a reductive attempt to teach inference to mastery that confuses isolated literacy skills with teaching literacy or literature. But this sort of bad lesson is necessary once you reduce teaching to mastery and teacher impact on student learning.

Instead of addressing this substantive problem and ways to conference with the teacher about focusing literacy instruction on rich texts and inviting students to explore those texts with more and more sophistication over a long period of time, the points of emphasis were on transcribing verbatim the lesson (although we could barely hear the audio) so that we could give lots of evidence for the bullet points we were not supposed to view as a checklist.

[Let’s note that no time was allowed to acknowledge that if and when teacher evaluators need detailed evidence of teaching, the video itself is superior to transcribing.]

The Big Point here is that once a rubric is codified by the state as a credentialing instrument, that rubric determines “proficient,” which may also simultaneously be a very bad, uninspiring, and reductive act of teaching.

Within that, as well, we witnessed the faux-science of claiming to embrace concepts while simultaneously contradicting them.

While only a few students out of a class of 20-plus students responded aloud during the lesson (our only potential evidence of learning), that constituted “most” and thus “proficient”—and represents in the Orwellian confines of this rubric “mastery.”

A few students offering one or two comments aloud in no reasonable way constitutes mastery, and there were no efforts to control for anything that justifies claiming this lesson by this teacher was a direct causal agent for the supposed learning. For example, those students willing to share may have come to class already capable of playing the inference game in school.

Teacher education as a bureaucratic mandate has mostly and currently functions as faux-science—adopting the language of being a certain kind of reductive behavioral psychology without taking the care and time to understand or implement the concept with fidelity.

This is a tragic consequence of the low self-esteem of the field—which becomes a vicious cycle of pretending (badly) to be a field deemed more credible (psychology) but unable to become a credible and independent field unfettered by bureaucracy.

Everything Wrong with Teacher Education Is Everything Wrong with Education

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy,” concludes Rebecca Smith, adding:

Data hold elusive promises of addressing educational concerns, promising real-time personalized instruction, predicting student growth, and closing the achievement gap of marginalized students (Bernhardt, 2006; Earl & Katz, 2006; Spillane, 2012). Today collections of student data are considered a reliable and a scientific way of measuring academic growth, mobilizing school improvement, and creating accountable, qualified teachers. Influenced by policy, pedagogy, and governing school procedures, data collection has become normalized in schools. Instead of asking what we can do with data, the better questions are: How did the accepted practice of quantifying children become normalized in education? How does our interaction with data govern our thoughts, discourses, and actions? (p. 2)

And as Smith details, the historical roots are deep:

Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where “knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity” (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision. (p. 3)

As a logical although extreme consequence of this historical pattern, Common Core represents the false allure of accountability and standards as well as the quantification of teaching and learning within the idealized promise of “common.”

Common Core was doomed from the beginning, like the many iterations of standards before because as a consequence of the accountability era the evidence is quite clear:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum.

And thus:

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

For decades and decades—and then to an extreme over the past thirty years—education and teacher preparation have been mired in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The quality of education, teaching, and learning is not in any reasonable way connected to the presence or quality of standards, to the ways in which we have chosen to measure and then quantify them.

Training education professionals to use a really bad rubric that will determine if candidates are allowed to teach “proficiently” (which I can define for you: “badly”) is insanity because within a few years, another rubric will be heralded as the greatest thing while teaching and learning are no better—and likely worse—for all the bluster, time, and money wasted.

Education and teacher education are trapped in a very long technocratic nightmare bound to a reductive behaviorism and positivism.

These false gods are useful for control and compliance, but are in no way supportive of educating everyone in a free society.

Technocrats and bureaucrats cut straight ditches; teaching and learning are meandering brooks.