The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

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Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

When Think Tank Opinion on Policy Is Driven by Advocacy, Refute Them: A Reader

Last night in my new upper-level writing course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, we waded into critical discourse analysis, followed by practicing those moves on a picture book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type.

Next, we shifted to small groups so students could also practice analyzing media coverage of education—a key component of their assignments that require comparing media narratives about key education topics to the research base on that topic. I provided the small groups with an Op-Ed on teacher recruitment and retention from the local paper and 10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing from Education Week.

One group noticed this EdWeek commentary cited The Brookings Institute, and as I and one of our texts (Bracey, 2006) have stressed, when analyzing media claims about educational research, we must all critically investigate anything coming from think tanks.

So I was primed for my Twitter feed this morning when I noticed Peter Greene’s Still Pushing the Common Core—a sharp and thorough unpacking of The Brookings Institutes’ misguided When public opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them:

Among the living dead that stumble through the graveyard of failed education ideas, we can still find our old friend, the Common Core State [sic] Standards. Like an undead Tinker Bell, as long as someone’s willing to clap for the damned thing, it will keep coming back.

This time the applause is coming from Brookings, an institution devoted to the notion that economists can be experts in anything. The actual research they’re highlighting was produced by a research grant from the USC Rossier School of Education, and written up by Stephen Aguilar, Morgan Polikoff, and Gale Sinatra, all of the Rossier School. Polikoff is a familiar name in the ed reform world, and he can sometimes be found conducting serious research. This is not one of those times.

Echoing Greene’s last point, I stressed last night that Brookings often produced solid reports, despite Greene’s caution (“economists can be experts in anything”); in fact, I routinely promote the work of Andre Perry, a Brookings Fellow.

After reading Greene’s analysis, I clicked on the Brookings report and immediately scanned the footnotes, noticing that the report includes none of the thorough reports and comprehensive research on two very important issues related to the Common Core debate: (1) the standards movement has shown over more than three decades of constantly creating and implementing new standards that there is almost no clear correlation between the quality or presence of standards and better student outcomes, and (2) careful analyses of Common Core have shown that these standards show no promise of overcoming that clear trend.

Instead of taking the necessary larger step back and away from the cult of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, as Greene explains:

The paper purports to be about correcting misperceptions and misunderstandings about public policy, but I think it’s better understood as a study of how to better sculpt PR to market your policy idea. And in this case they’re looking at how to better manage the PR for Common Core.

Yes, as someone who lives in the Tea-Party-turned-Trumplandia Upstate of South Carolina, I witnessed the yard signs protesting the Common Core, a heaping mess of anti-Obama misconceptions.

But what Brookings fails to acknowledge, trapped as they are in the “better standards” delusion, is that Common Core advocates were mostly just as misinformed as the ideologues attacking Common Core as a proxy for the Obama agenda.

Why not conduct some research on that? Maybe: When political opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them.

Or better yet: Bitter lessons from chasing better standards [1].

(Hint: Think tanks are mostly all-in on education reform for the sake of education reform and too often bereft of critical education scholars.)

And thus, here is another hint: In this Groundhog Day adventure in standards [2], there has been absolutely no absence of solid evidence-based and critical responses to the Common Core movement. The problem, repeated again by this Brookings report, is the “rigid refusal” to acknowledge the failure of the accountability/standards/high-stakes testing silo approach to education reform.

Along with suggesting you read Greene, then, let me offer a reader, one I am certain will once again be ignored since it makes a case the education reform crowd simply does not want to acknowledge:

Finally, there is a nugget in this Brookings misfire that deserves some attention:

Despite largely falling off the political radar (neither President Trump nor Secretary DeVos has talked much about Common Core in the last year except to say that it is dead),[3] the standards are still an important topic. More than 40 states are still implementing the standards or a very close variant thereof.[4] Billions are still being spent on curriculum materials and professional development.

As I noted in the AlterNet piece linked above, the pursuit of better (and ever-new) standards and better (and ever-new) high-stakes tests is mostly a financial boondoggle for the textbook and testing industries as well as a careless financial drain on educational funding (tax-payers’ money).

Framing any standards debate, then, as simply a PR problem is more than lazy; it is careless and ultimately yet another remedy that is part of the disease.


[1] Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests

[2] I am seeking a second-level metaphor since Greene aptly used the zombie comparison.

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.

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