We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:
Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.
As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.
In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.
Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.
At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).
If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.
This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.
This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.
The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:
The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.
Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.
Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.
This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.
Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.
So, what about the reform solutions offered here?
Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:
- “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
- “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
- “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
- “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.
Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! ), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:
As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.
If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.
No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.
Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.
 In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!
Briefly on the National Council of Teachers of English‘s Connected Community, members could post on forums anonymously, spurring a few discussions and debates about anonymity and professionalism (as well as attribution of ideas and accountability during a thread about plagiarism).
When I first moved to higher education, my current university had an online platform that included a discussion feature, one that also allowed students (or anyone in the university community) to post anonymously with screen names.
One particular group of students connected with a powerful and controversial (also highly politicized and well funded from outside sources) student organization often posted anonymously and tended toward personal attacks of university professors—xenophobic and homophobic slurs included.
Several professors also participated in these online debates, but with their names openly displayed.
This situation was a subset of a larger campus tension between very conservative students and a much more moderate faculty. Ultimately, that forum was closed and never resurrected; however, a key element of the situation was the debate over whether or not anonymous posting was appropriate—notably in the context of an institution of higher learning.
Then and during the recent NCTE Connected Community discussion, I have always maintained that a key element of professionalism is the relationship between a professional’s name and her/his stances, claims.
In my professional scholarship and my public work, my name and even access to my email are prominent always.
As a writer and career educator, I see my scholarship and public work as extensions of teaching—and believe all teachers must be authoritative, earning the trust of those they serve as teachers. The who and what of teaching and making claims, for me, is inextricable.
However, there is a long and powerful history of pen names/pseudonyms in traditional writing as well as the more recent world of blogging.
Anonymous voices have risen out of oppression in the name of overcoming that oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.
So if we return to the anonymous posting on NCTE’s Connected Community and place that in the context of students posting anonymously at my university, we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.
Students feared grade and course retaliations for posting under their names in the same way K-12 teachers in the U.S. fear speaking publicly because educators’ job security has deteriorated significantly in recent decades.
Educators at all levels are also under a powerful norm to avoid being political, to resist activism—much of which is about the cultural silencing of women.
Nonetheless, anonymous public and forum commentary often emboldens people to be reckless and unprofessional—personal attacks, trolling, etc.
As I noted above, all of my professional and public writing and commentary are under my very public name; therefore, that forces me to hold myself to an incredibly high standard—primarily to make only warranted claims.
Especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I seek ways to model the same sort of standard for making claims in public contexts that I make in scholarship. Even my Op-Ed and commentary work in journalism is meticulously cited (through hyperlinks)—although some online publications still resist including them.
Further, as a teacher 24/7, I believe I am a model for my students who need to embrace a way of being in a democracy that includes their voices and their ethical acts of rewriting the world.
My students are unlikely to be writers or scholars, but they certainly should be living by and making warranted stances. And possibly more than ever, they must be able to read and re-read the world in order to know when others are being credible or petty and vile.
Let us not trivialize the urge to raise anonymous voices, but also, let us not ignore that the most vicious among us are empowered by anonymity: the terror and power of the KKK were intensified by the white hoods and gowns.
A free and just society in which there is no need for anonymity is a wonderful ideal, but I am certain we have yet to reach that situation.
Those of us who have levels of privilege that allow us to model the ideal must continue to do so. Using those privileges to silence others with legitimate concerns about their own imbalances of power is inexcusable.
In any and all connected communities, then, it becomes more about the nature of the conversations than professional or personal accountability.
Anonymous or not, public or professional, we teachers must always resist being petty, and those who need the veil of anonymity would serve their own causes well to have high standards for that context in the same way linking professionalism and our names should.
I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.
I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have words.
“Four Bookshops,” The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman
After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years and counting as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting a couple weeks ago in our second workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.
Both the formal teaching of reading and writing—notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels—is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher .
While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in the former, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often comes off as a heated debate instead of a productive conversation.
I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared to teach a very narrow version of literary criticism—mostly addressing fiction and poetry, and mostly through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)
During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, no real-world writers do this).
I will not explore this fully here, but we cannot ignore as well how the commodification of education has eroded the authenticity of reading and writing. Textbooks and teaching materials feed the accountability dynamic narrowly but also speak to viewing reading and writing as students and teachers, not as readers and writers.
A Case for Readers and Writers in Formal Schooling
I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, and this adventure in a writer’s-writer offering essay after essay about his love affair with books, writers, libraries, and genre is both a pure joy for me as reader and writer as well as yet another journey into trying to understand better the teaching of reading and writing.
Gaiman is an incredibly successful writer who cannot resist constantly reminding his readers how his life as a writer grew from his love affair with books and writers, how bookstores and libraries were his sanctuaries.
His is also a testament to the power of a wide variety of genres and media in the life of avid readers and writers.
“The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” and “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” are powerful essays about the importance of teaching literacy as readers and writers (and thus at least tempering teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers) but also about how literacy is a journey, not something to be acquired or mastered.
To focus on the second essay noted above, Gaiman shares a story of his telling a joke to a fellow eight-year-old, a joke including the word “fuck”; the controversy that followed, including the friend’s parents removing that child from the private school, taught Gaiman “two very important lessons”:
The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.
And the second is that words have power.
This essay on children’s literature is also about children, as Gaiman explains:
Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.
And then, Gaiman confronts formal schooling—reinforcing something I have found to be a pattern among some of the most well regarded writers (I have written and edited a number of books on writers, focusing often on Kurt Vonnegut):
For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….
My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.
I was escaping. Of course I was—C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers. 
And here is where I believe the tension I noted earlier comes into play.
Again, I am not arguing here that teaching literacy as a reader/writer is necessarily better than teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher, but I am extremely concerned that the latter dominates formal schooling to an extreme that is harmful to both literacy and basic human dignity and agency.
Gaiman’s essays, however, shout to those of us who teach literacy that formal schooling and teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers stood between Gaiman and works such as his wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that Gaiman has become a gifted and treasured writer in spite of his formal education (like Louise DeSalvo, Gaiman honors the coincidental lessons of libraries and bookstores).
I am fairly certain now that lumping all sorts of literacy instruction into a course called “English” is a really bad idea—teaching literary analysis is often at odds with fostering a love of reading, but being a teacher of reading and/or literature is simply not the same thing as teaching writing.
So much of my antagonism about how we teach literacy isn’t at us teachers so much as at the system itself—how formal schooling too often is rightly analogized as prison, how many of us have excelled in many ways in spite of our education.
As a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores; as a writer who views nearly every moment of this life through writer’s eyes; as someone who, like Gaiman, remains moment by moment aware of the “powerlessness” and “helplessness” of being a child or teen, of being a student—I make the case often that the teaching of literacy—reading and writing—needs less school- and test-only versions of reading and writing, but much more authentic reading and writing.
At the end of his contemplation on what makes a book for children (or adults), Gaiman returns to a point he makes early in the talk: “But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions”
And it is here that I think we have a better way for formal schooling—the pursuit of questions with the joy and wonder of a child.
And I’ll thus end with a question: What value is there in rules, tests, templates, and requirements if in the end our classrooms have resulted in children seeking ways to escape “the pointlessness of so much of it”?
 Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is reduced to tests, templates, and narrow views of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.
 On Science Fiction, C.S. Lewis:
They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.
Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.
In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).
Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.
Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.
Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.
Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.
All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.
During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”
Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.
As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.
But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.
And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.
So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.
From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.
The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”
In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.
So what does all this mean?
Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.
The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]
Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.
Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.
Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.
Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.
First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.
As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.
But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.
Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.
And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.
We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.
Let me end with my graduate course.
For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.
I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.
I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.
I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”
I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.
I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.
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.
My seniors returned yesterday to our ELA methods seminar after an extended 2.5 months of their field placement, our program’s condensed version of what most people would call student teaching.
After teaching high school English for almost two decades, and now an additional 14 years as a teacher educator, I am even more aware of how challenging beginning to teach is.
One of the hurdles to entering the field of teaching is the mentoring paradox. As teacher candidates approach receiving their degrees and attaining teacher certification, they are likely to focus more on how they are taught as well as how their mentors teach.
Their university professors, I regret to say, often appear very polished and expert, but even their education professors fail to practice what they preach—endorsing an array of instructional and assessment practices that the professors do not implement in the course (thus, candidates have never experienced these practices as students, never seen what they look like).
As well, teacher candidates are routinely observing formally and informally experienced teachers, who seem far more casual and extemporaneous than they are; as well, these experienced teachers are the culmination of years of failures, fits and restarts that teacher candidates have no way of knowing, have no access to witnessing.
The same sorts of problems exists when candidates are placed with teachers in field experiences and student teaching. Those teachers of record present similar paradoxes of their experience and expertise—questionable pedagogy or classroom management practices appear effective to the novice teacher candidate, teacher planning and instructional implementation seem effortless.
These issues along with how my program compresses methods coursework (and thus restricts my own ability to model how to teach ELA) have been bothering me in the wake of more than two months of weekly observations of four teacher candidates in secondary ELA.
Since my candidates returned in the middle of National Poetry Month, poetry and the teaching of poetry have been much on my mind as well—leading to my starting our first seminar back with Nick Flynn’s “Forty-Seven Minutes.”
From that, I was planning to confront the problem of the literary technique hunt in ELA courses, especially those courses preparing students for high-stakes testing and not a love of language and literature.
As I waded into my opening comments and questions, the result became a confession of my own journey from a beginning teacher with good intentions who felt and believed one thing but his practices were resulting in the exact opposite of those beliefs.
My young teacher Self was also a young writer, including being a poet, but my young teacher Self strangled any life that was there in both the poetry we decimated or the students’ own affection for words, language, and text of any kind.
My young teacher Self was fully aware that formal schooling was doing something wrong—actually many things wrong—in the context of authentic responses to text and writing.
However, my initial strategy was bound by my missionary zeal (oh my god!) and the seductive allure of a technocratic grip on teaching and students.
Probably the very worst manifestation of this was my early efforts at teaching poetry.
For my candidates yesterday, I outlined my transitions from a teacher destroying a form I love to a teacher who taught poetry with fidelity. Allow me here to offer those briefly:
- In the beginning, I painstakingly taught students my glorious “four characteristics of poetry”—using a wide range of wonderful (I thought) poems to model these four characteristics. This adventure in transmissional instruction was designed to culminate in students choosing a poem (my very progressive element!) we had not covered in class to write a formal essay illuminating the four characteristics of poetry I had “taught” them. Those essays were abysmal.
- Failing to see the essential failure of this approach, I tried to resurrect my poetry unit by pairing the songs of the alternative group R.E.M. with the poems we examined in class (see the unit here and There’s Time to Teach: Making Poetry Sing with R.E.M.). And while this certainly infused the unit on poetry with some life, my commitment to transmissional and template pedagogy continued to result in fatal blows to any sort of fidelity to poetry, writing, or humanity.
- The two key moments of transition for me and my practices (which during my doctoral program became more intentionally critical) included having my former English teacher and mentor Lynn Harrill guest teach Emily Dickinson and then my abandoning the four characteristics of poetry for an essential question: What makes poetry, poetry?
- As I observed Lynn teach Dickinson, I was able to see, confront, and reject how my teaching practices were trapped in a false linear, sequential, and analytic view of learning. I demanded part-to-whole approaches to text, an approach grounded in an uncritical deference to New Criticism. Lynn, however, allowed and encouraged students to make the responses they felt were important—often huge and sweeping responses that were both cognitive and affective—and then he helped guide them to clarifying—and thus proving—how their responses were valid or not. In short, Lynn honored that most people have holistic responses, working whole-to-part, to make meaning.
- Related to that epiphany, I simply had to admit that my four characteristics of poetry routine was inane—mostly manageable but quite inauthentic. Embracing the essential question approach to genre, form, and text in general allowed every lesson to be about investigating text and reaching conclusions grounded in those texts and not just reaching conclusions determined for all texts and all students by the teacher as authoritarian. The beauty of “What makes poetry, poetry?” is that with each poem, students and I must confess that it may be the purposeful composing of text in lines and stanzas (in contrast to forming text in sentences and paragraphs for prose), but even that is disrupted by prose poetry.
Teaching poetry with fidelity, then, is about the possibilities of poetry, of language. It is about those investigations and interrogations that we must not prescribe, unless we have resigned ourselves to formal schooling being about compliance.
My young teacher Self dedicated in my belief system (although not yet aware these existed) to social reconstruction and critical pedagogy was implementing practices that resulted in student compliance, student dread, and student apathy for the very stuff I myself embraced with joy, best represented by poetry.
My teacher candidates have never seen that foolish young man with good intentions, missionary zeal, and daily failures.
And despite what a monumental task becoming a teacher is, I am in awe each year of these candidates, already well past that early Me.
After her extended field experience, one candidate told me she has realized teachers really don’t teach anyone anything; she’s already reached an awareness of the paradoxes that took me a decade to confront.
As I continue to contemplate teaching poetry with fidelity, then, I am more cautious and intentional about teaching future teachers with fidelity as well: Are any of us practicing what we preach? Are we stepping back and observing the consequences of what we teach and holding that against what we believe?
Here, then, in teacher education we confront more essential questions.
My take on Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” has always focused on the callousness of her math teacher and the subsequent marginalizing of Rachel, who represents for me all students and especially vulnerable students.
Due to both historical and recent (the accountability movement) pressures, teachers fail when they see their work as teaching content instead of teaching students.
Students as well as their love of literature and language and poetry are often sacrificed at the alter of the literary technique hunt so that they can answer questions correctly on a standardized test.
What a bloody waste.
For those who teach, and teach poetry, and love poetry—and probably lose a piece of their soul each time they teach poetry—I recommend the brief poem “Forty-Seven Minutes” by Nick Flynn.
The beauty of the poem is that it sets up a classroom situation in which a student pushes back against the literary technique hunt with “Does it matter?”
The persona of the poem is forced to conclude:
I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.
We must ask, then, when teaching poetry, what it is we are about.
Do we owe anything to our students, to our students’ love of language, literature, poetry? Do we owe anything to our fidelity to poetry itself?
If yes—and I think it is yes—it does not matter if we name the techniques; but otherwise, if poetry is simply one of many sacrifices to the standards and testing gods, then let us reduce all the beauty that is poetry to covering the curriculum, meeting the obligations of accountability.
And all else be damned.