While the U.S. presidency is rarified air, the presidential election often reflects the best and worst of the American character.
As the country sits in the cusp of the end of the first black president’s administration and the likelihood of electing the first female president, what does the current election show about the lingering privilege of being white, male, and straight in the U.S.?
Being black, brown, female, gay, or transgender requires perfection while being white, male, and heterosexual allows any transgression to be excused.
Hillary must be perfect (her email controversy is oddly identical to millions of erased emails from private servers under George W. Bush, although that is of no real concern to the public or the media, for example), but Trump’s admitted behavior as a sexual predator is swept aside as just a man being one of the boys.
Yes, the glorious sanctity of the office of president must not be sullied—although the Republican Party has elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and W. Bush, a who’s who of unethical personal and political behaviors?
And in this dynamic of privilege we find the cult of effort—the implication that all these powerful white males are in power because of effort, because they deserve the success, earned the success.
Recall that Trump built this off the pittance of an inherited few million. …
On a smaller scale, then, is the K-12 teacher, a profession trapped in the cult of effort and the gender gap.
Having spent my career in part as a K-12 public school teacher and now as a tenured full professor, I have witnessed first-hand a powerful and ugly dynamic.
First, let me work backward.
My university has only about 30% female faculty, which reflects a male norm (linked with a white norm) of university professors:
Few professions have greater professional autonomy that being a professor. I can assure you that rarely do people even bother telling a professor what to do—and among those few, virtually none have any real influence.
The profession of being a professor is a white, male world of autonomy and significant prestige.
As above, there is also a false cult of effort among professors—the professorate, so goes the message, is mostly white and male because of the hard work of those white men.
And if you doubt that, listen carefully to the white male response to initiatives for increasing the diversity of professors: We must maintain our rigorous standards for hiring! they shout.
The cult of effort, the cult of rigor—these are codes for maintaining privilege.
The inverse of this dynamic is at the K-12 level of teaching, a work force still dominated by women:
For K-12 teachers, historically and especially over the past two or three decades, the cult of effort has imposed on the American public that schools are failing primarily because of a slack teacher force (read: a mostly female teacher force), and the way to reform that lazy work force is to raise standard! and demand more!
Let us imagine for a moment that gender divide between the supreme autonomy of mostly male professors and the nearly absent professional autonomy and ridiculous accountability leveled at mostly female K-12 teachers.
The entirely inexcusable “no excuses” model implemented in high-poverty schools serving mostly black and brown students has also become the default environment of being a K-12 teacher: high demand, nearly superhuman demand that erases all professional autonomy and most of the human dignity of teaching.
The accountability era has intensified the historical marginalizing of K-12 teaching as just a woman’s profession; the stakes have been artificially increased while teacher autonomy has been even further eroded.
As a result, K-12 teachers have their work scripted and then are badgered for poor outcomes from the practices they didn’t even choose to implement.
The public and in-school environments for K-12 teachers are toxic—unprofessional and dehumanizing. Administrators who can go to the restroom any time they please demand teachers remain at their doors between classes and never leave a class unattended—relegating basic bodily functions to 20-minute lunch periods (if they are free of students) and planning time.
This reality cannot be disentangled from the gender gap reflected between professors in higher education and K-12 teachers—as well as the current presidential campaign.
K-12 teacher bashing is nested in sexism—assumptions that women are unable and unwilling to make the effort needed to educate children; and thus, K-12 teachers need to be scripted and held to high standards of accountability.
In the political and educational worlds, however, those demanding that accountability and driving the criticism are often far above the standards they espouse.
And that is the ugly truth about women, so-called racial minorities, and gay/transgendered people who must be perfect while white, straight men are forgiven for any and every transgression.
Our democracy suffers under that inequity of privilege and the profession of K-12 teaching is on life support because of the essentially nasty environment surrounding day-to-day teaching.
Democracy and K-12 teaching both require and deserve an atmosphere of patience, compassion, and kindness—traits marginalized by toxic masculinity and white privilege in order to maintain the unearned status of power in the U.S.
At the very least, no one should have to be perfect or everyone should have to be perfect.
Immediately, then, let’s confront how terribly flawed white, straight male leadership has been and is currently—disturbingly personified by Trump himself.
Next, the false cult of effort must end, replaced by the acknowledgement of privilege as central to who has power and why.
With the false cult of effort unmasked, the gender gap can then be erased as well.
From political leadership to the teaching of children in K-12 schools, we will all benefit greatly from the rich diversity of who can and will lead and teach us—especially if that leadership and teaching are rooted in patience and kindness, especially if basic human dignity and autonomy are promised to all.
Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:
Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”
It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.
There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:
Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”
Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.
The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.
And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.
In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.
Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:
To the Editor:
As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.
Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.
Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.
The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.
In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.
I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.
My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.
While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.
Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.
If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.
Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).
Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.
See the abstract:
Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.
This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.
And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.
Here’s just a taste:
Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.
In the spirit that feels appropriate in the wake of the death of Muhammad Ali—and the concurrent failure of mainstream reflections ignoring or whitewashing the real history of his life—I offer below a collection of education-related links that can serve as powerful mythbusters for the ongoing false claims common in the mainstream media and among political leaders as well as edureformers.
Regardless of motives, the charter initiatives in Oakland and Los Angeles together signal a significant watershed in the growth of a statewide movement that was birthed by California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 to create classroom laboratories that might develop the dynamic new curricula and teaching methods needed to reinvigorate schools that were failing the state’s most underserved and disadvantaged children.
How that modest experiment in fixing neighborhood public schools could morph in less than 25 years into the replacement of public schools with an unproven parallel system of privately run, taxpayer-funded academies is only half the story of California’s education wars that will be examined in this series, much of which is based on conversations with both sides of the charter school debate. Over the next few days Capital & Main will also look at:
- The influence wielded by libertarian philanthropists who bankroll the 50-50 takeovers.
- How charter schools spend less time and money on students with learning disabilities.
- The lack of charter school transparency and accountability.
- How charter expansion is pushing Oakland’s public school district toward a fateful tipping point.
- The success of less radical yet more effective reforms that get scant media coverage.
- Nine solution takeaways for struggling schools.
(from Failing the Test: A New Series Examines Charter Schools, Bill Raden)
Charters and Access: Here is Evidence, Julian Vasquez Helig
No, Eva, You Can’t Do Whatever You Want, Jersey Jazzman
Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?: A Review of the Research, Tara Kini and Anne Podolsky
Based on our review of 30 studies published within the last 15 years that analyze the effect of teaching experience on student outcomes in the United States and met our methodological criteria, we find that:
- Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career. Gains in teacher effectiveness associated with experience are most steep in teachers’ initial years, but continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.
- As teachers gain experience, their students not only learn more, as measured by standardized tests, they are also more likely to do better on other measures of success, such as school attendance.
- Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment, and when they accumulate experience in the same grade level, subject, or district.
- More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.
On negative effects of vouchers, Mark Dynarski
Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.
Another explanation is that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate. Since the nineties, public schools have been under heavy pressure to improve test scores. Private schools were exempt from these accountability requirements. A recent study showed that public schools closed the score gap with private schools. That study did not look specifically at Louisiana and Indiana, but trends in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for public school students in those states are similar to national trends.
In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction. More needs to be known about long-term outcomes from these recently implemented voucher programs to make the case that they are a good investment of public funds. As well, we need to know if private schools would up their game in a scenario in which their performance with voucher students is reported publicly and subject to both regulatory and market accountability.
School Discipline, Race, and Gender
* Please note the disturbing series of comments at the end.
Most of the discussion around the disproportionality of black students’ suspension or expulsion from K-12 schools has focused on boys. Only more recently have researchers begun to surface the numbers of black girls who are subject to severe disciplinary measures in schools, including by school resource officers.
According to federal data, black girls are suspended from school at a rate that is six times higher than that of their white female peers. In New York City and Boston, black girls represented 56 percent and 61 percent, respectively, of all girls disciplined in those cities’ K-12 schools, even as incidents of discipline against black girls go underreported. Black girls receive harsher criminal sentences than their white female peers do in the juvenile-justice system, and they also represent its fastest-growing population.
For this special Commentary package, Education Week Commentary sat down with researchers Adrienne D. Dixson, Shaun R. Harper, Bettina L. Love, and Terri N. Watson at this spring’s American Educational Research Association conference to discuss their perspectives on this crisis.
Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding and Achievement Gaps, Bruce D. Baker, Danielle Farrie, and David G. Sciarra
Although there has been significant progress in the long term, achievement gaps among the nation’s students persist. Many factors have contributed to the disparities in outcomes, and societal changes can explain progress, or lack thereof, over the past few decades. This is well documented in the 2010 Educational Testing Service (ETS) report Black–White Achievement Gaps: When Progress Stopped, which explored achievement gap trends and identified the changing conditions that may have influenced those trends. In this report, we extend that work by focusing on the relationship between school funding, resource allocation, and achievement among students from low-income families. We tackle the assumption that greater resources, delivered through fair and equitable school funding systems, could help raise academic outcomes and reduce the achievement gap. The goal is to provide convincing evidence that state finance policies have consequences in terms of the level and distribution of resources, here limited to staffing characteristics, and that the resulting allocation of resources is also associated with changes in both the level of academic achievement and achievement gaps between low-income children and their peers. Using more than 20 years of revenue and expenditure data for schools, we empirically test the idea that increasing investments in schools generally is associated with greater access to resources as measured by staffing ratios, class sizes, and the competitiveness of teacher wages. When the findings presented here are considered with the strong body of academic literature on the positive relationship between substantive and sustained state school finance reforms and improved student outcomes, a strong case can be made that state and federal policy focused on improving state finance systems to ensure equitable funding and improving access to resources for children from low-income families is a key strategy to improve outcomes and close achievement gaps.
The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance, William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner
Beneath the abundant and vigorous advocacy lies a very limited body of generally accepted research. Understanding the effects of “portfolio district reform” is hampered by messy reform contexts, where portfolios are only one of several major ongoing reforms, thus weakening causal inferences. Understanding these effects is also hampered by definitional problems—elastic labels with different components and different names being applied in different places.12 Further, the school cultural changes are often massive, interactions are complex, and politicization generates a great deal of noise. This renders the isolation of specific facets enormously difficult.13 Yet amidst the claims and counterclaims,14 several findings are clear:
- Charter schools do not appear to have much impact on test scores, but they do have some negative unintended consequences.15
- Similarly, school closures may have some positive or negative impact, but they certainly result in instability.16
- School turnaround approaches have, in general, been very disappointing, in large part because of the problems with closures and charter schools.17 The churn in the system, loss of institutional knowledge and loss of culture results in community and school disturbance and instability. Closing even low-performing schools can prove disruptive as community support dissipates, particularly if higher performing schools are not readily available.
- Research on mayoral control shows mixed evidence concerning effects on test scores.18
We would not be surprised to see some “portfolio districts” see some benefits, while others will see primarily detriments. Governance changes—particularly those aimed at decentralization and deregulation—tend to involve complex trade-offs. Opponents will be able to point to failures; advocates will be able to point to successes. In the end, though, student outcomes in under-resourced urban districts will continue to be driven by larger societal inequities.
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).
Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:
How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?
Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?
Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.
At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.
Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”
As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.
But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.
So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:
- Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
- Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
- And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.
This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:
But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.
SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.
For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?
Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.
Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”
A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.
Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.
As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.
Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.
So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?
The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:
- Failure Factories
- Lessons in Fear
- Who’s My Teacher Today
- Hear From the Kids
- Reports Spur Visit From Education Chief
Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.
And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.
That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.
Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.
One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:
Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?
The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.
You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.
And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.
The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?
The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.
Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”
That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.
And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.
Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.
If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.
Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.
Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.
Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.
Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.
Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.
Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.
Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.
Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.
I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.
As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.
We both can and should do better.
Kassie Benjamin offers a powerful confession at Jose Vilson’s blog. Benjamin—like many educators including myself—became an educator firmly holding to the belief that education is the great equalizer, the lever that changes people’s lives and society for the better.
However, Benjamin explains: “Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.”
In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin names the assimilation Benjamin confronts as “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:
What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….
I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)
Emdin points a finger at urban “no excuses” charter schools as contemporary versions of traditional schooling created to “fix” Native Americans. For example, Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:
In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.
Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:
Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.
But we should also look at a number of policies that are thinly veiled mechanisms for assimilation/colonialism.
Just as one example, tracking remains a robust practice in U.S. education, I believe, because it appears to help the so-called top students (mostly white and relatively affluent) even though a great deal of evidence shows tracking hurts the so-called struggling students (mostly black/brown and impoverished).
Policy makers, administrators, and teachers promoting and implementing practices, then, who are in effect perpetuating classroom colonialism may often have good intentions.
Charlotte Danielson provides us here an ironic and important model as she confronts teacher evaluation:
The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.
Danielson, of course, continues to criticize the recent push for extended accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing into how we evaluate, retain, and pay teachers (popularly known as VAM, for using “value added methods”).
The irony comes as Danielson slips into what I believe is the central problem driving much of the classroom colonialism challenged by Benjamin, Emdin, Samudzi, and Paul Gorski: Danielson’s alternative to the failed good intentions of teacher evaluation is just another technocratic version of teacher evaluation.
Colonialism in traditional schooling survives because education is a reflection of our society. Schools will never be transformative at the social level until formal education is unlike our inequitable social structures—until formal schooling serves our vulnerable students’ needs first by honoring them as fully human instead of framing them through deficit lenses.
School discipline begins and reflects the racially inequitable mass incarceration of the wider society. Tracking reflects and perpetuates our class stratifications.
Nearly every aspect of school policy and practice is a mechanism for assimilation—not transformation.
Education and education reform are trapped in a technocratic vision that can only replicate our society.
Education reform and the commodification of education are bound by the mantra “My technocratic vision is better than your technocratic vision.”
It isn’t about standards, but the new and better standards.
It isn’t about high-stakes testing, but the new and better high-stakes tests.
And not once, not once, has the promise of the new been realized in any ways that serve impoverished students, black/brown students, or English language learners.
However, nearly always, the policies and practices in place have served well (or at least not impeded) the whitest and wealthiest.
Emdin invokes the metaphor of invisibility throughout his dismantling of “white pedagogy” and call for “reality pedagogy.” But I am drawn to my English teacher and existential roots by the concluding image of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: the guillotine.
Camus’s main character Meursault describes that “the guillotine looked like such a precision instrument, perfect and gleaming….[T]he machine destroyed everything: you were killed discretely , with a little shame and with great precision” (p. 112).
The efficiency of the technocratic mind, the guillotine, that served the interests of the ruling elites at the expense of anyone else who did not conform, assimilate.
The technocrats, even with good intentions, maintain a classroom colonialism that honors “assimilate or die.”
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
The gold standard, I think, for thinking about education reform and more narrow concerns such as teacher quality is the complex and confrontational approach of Lisa Delpit, who anchors her perspective with how we teach and treat “other people’s children”—black and brown children, impoverished children.
And from that perspective we have the ugly “good teacher” discussion few are willing to confront: Vulnerable populations of children and their families are where and how we experiment with education, where and how we adopt policies and practices no affluent and white families would tolerate for their children: Teach For America, “no excuses,” zero tolerance.
High-poverty and majority-minority schools are burdened not just with social inequity hurdles but also with systemic and often unspoken practices that include having incredibly high teacher turn over because these “problem” schools are entry points for teachers to find “better” jobs (see Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect).
Just as insidious is the systemic and often unspoken practice in all schools that “low-level” classes of students are assigned new teachers, who must endure those populations of students until they can have the “good” classes within that school.
These ugly practices grounded in racism and classism are at the root of why advocates for education reform who focus on race and class remain mostly dissatisfied with both sides of the mainstream education reform debate.
The edu-reformers are all-in on race and class tone-deaf practices—TFA, “no excuses,” zero tolerance—but the advocates for public education and progressive reform have failed to admit how the traditional public school system has historically failed “other people’s children” through the wink-wink-nod-nod approach to assigning teachers.
Too often, teachers are complicit in and fail to confront the system that marginalizes vulnerable populations of students as collateral damage of teacher advancement.
During my 18 years of public school teaching, even among teachers, the common sense attitude was that “good” teachers were assigned Advanced Placement, and teaching “low-level” classes was a negative commentary on the teacher’s ability. As department chair, I worked to assign each teacher a couple classes she/he requested, and then tried to balance every teacher’s load with a range of class levels and types.
While I was working on my dissertation, writing a biography of educator Lou LaBrant, I was profoundly struck by a point of irritation she expressed in her memoir. LaBrant noted that she had her best teachers in her doctoral program, at the end of her formal education, but that progression, she believed, is backward in that children need their best teachers in the beginning of formal education, not the end.
Our vulnerable populations of students must be served first in our public school system: assigned experienced and qualified teachers, placed in classes with low teacher/student ratios, guaranteed access to the most challenging courses and curriculums, and promised safe, diverse schools with equitable, supportive disciplinary practices.
Everything else is a distraction from what truly matters.