Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall – Part 2,” Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I taught as an outsider—but for many of those years, I found solace in a colleague, Ed Welchel, who taught history.

Among students, parents, faculty, and administration, Ed and I were considered good, even very good teachers, but we also were viewed with skepticism, particularly the farther up the authority chain you went (parents and administrators, especially).

The high school where we taught, although a rural public school, felt in many ways like a strict private school—very harsh discipline and dress codes, palpable conservative values.

Ed and I were as unlike that environment as two people could be.

After a particularly brutal faculty meeting that stressed the need to control our students, Ed and I began a chant we would share quietly as we passed in the hall: “Beat ’em down, beat ’em down.”

After I completed my doctorate in 1998, Ed soon finished the same program, and then left for another high school before moving on to higher education before I did.

That was fifteen-plus years ago, but it stands as relevant today since many are beginning to fret in earnest about why so many K-12 teachers leave the field.

It’s pretty damn obvious, I hate to say, but many teachers leave the profession because formal schooling is incredibly dehumanizing for students and teachers; in short, in schools, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

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Dark Sarcasms in the Classroom

Former career music educator and blogger at Education Week/Teacher, Nancy Flanagan asks: “Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?”

Flanagan also confronts a key distinction about what “leadership” means by examining if teacher leaders are, as Audre Lourde would say, using the Master’s tools (implementing policy as required by administration as agents of accountability mandates) or being autonomous professionals.

More optimistically than I would conclude, Flanagan suggests, “Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance–but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Educator and activist, Andre Perry turns a similar focus on how school climate impacts students, particularly marginalized populations of students. Perry stresses:

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

This rejects, for example, the racist undertones driving the popularity of “no excuses” ideology, notably among charter schools serving poor, black, and brown students. But Perry also speaks to the wider norm of formal schooling.

Historically and especially over the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, formal education is an Orwellian institution in which “critical thinking” is about completing a worksheet so you can score well on multiple-choice questions assessing critical thinking.

But don’t actually think or act critically if you are a student or a teacher.

Teacher Education and All that Is Wrong

Ed and I left K-12 education because of the harsh environment in schools toward students and because K-12 schools are no places for autonomous professionals.

I literally left after being docked pay for presenting at a professional conference.

However, much to our chagrin, teacher education in higher education is not oasis of professional autonomy, but the most embarrassing desert in higher education.

While colleagues in English often handed out 1-2 page syllabi, mine were 15-20 pages of standards, correlating assignments to those standards, and rubrics—despite my own published stance rejecting rubrics.

The professional life of a teacher educator is mostly about complying with accreditation and certification mandates in order to make sure teacher candidates comply with accreditation and certification mandates.

Again, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden!

For example, in the same foundations course I teach where we confront slut shaming and the inherent sexism of dress codes, within one week of my students being placed in a nearby elementary school to tutor, the principal asked me to remind the female students to dress appropriately.

As well, I always begin that course, and come back to this in most of my classes, with Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”—highlighting the dehumanizing norm of schooling that the story captures in the eleven-year-old Rachel’s lament: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

But my foundations students are left with observing that reality in their field placements while also being denied the autonomy to do anything to change it.

And while I will not bore you with more examples, the situation above is no outlier; that is what teacher education is—a perpetual state of compliance to bureaucracy that is devoid of opportunities for professional autonomy and critical thinking.

When our candidates do reach the field, they invariably come to use with these observations:

  • “I can’t do anything you taught us in methods.”
  • “This is why people leave the field.”
  • “The administration treats teachers like students.”

All aspects of the field of education, then, are about compliance to the “bureaucratizing of the mind” about which Paulo Freire warned.

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Formal education remains a desert, and we—teachers and students—wander dutifully forward, toward the wavering mirage that somehow teaching and learning are powerful instruments for change.

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Education as change remains just that, however—a mirage.

In the halls of schools at every level, student and teacher autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

 

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Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the 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. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

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.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


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.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

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.

6 June 2016 Reader: Mythbuster Edition

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.

Charter Schools

Failing The Test Series

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

Teacher Effectiveness/Experience

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.

Vouchers

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

Black Girls and School Discipline: Four Researchers Unpack K-12’s Racial Bias

* 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.

School Funding

New Study Connects the Dots Between School Funding Choices and Student Achievement, Highlighting the Dangers of Retrenchment in Courts, Derek Black

Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding and Achievement Gaps, Bruce D. BakerDanielle 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.

Portfolio/Takeover Districts

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:

  1. Charter schools do not appear to have much impact on test scores, but they do have some negative unintended consequences.15
  2. Similarly, school closures may have some positive or negative impact, but they certainly result in instability.16
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

Even Technocrats with Good Intentions Sustain Classroom Colonialism

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).

Further, like Benjamin and Emdin, Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.”

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.”

 

Today in “Don’t Believe It”

More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.

Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.

Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.

First, NCTQ—a think tank entirely lacking in credibilityissued a report claiming that teacher education is lousy, basing their claims on a fumbled review of textbooks assigned and course syllabi.

Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.

See the full review here.

Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”

Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.

See this analysis of Read to Succeed, the research base on grade retention, and the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution on grade retention and high-stakes testing.

When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.

The Ugly “Good Teacher” Discussion Few Are Confronting

“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.'”

Matthew 25:40

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.