How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

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:

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.

Dear EWA:

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.

Essential Questions: Confessions of My Life as a Misguided Teacher

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.

Teaching Poetry with Fidelity: “Does it matter?”

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.

Thus we teach Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” to identify the metaphors and similes; we assign Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” for a daring look at rhyme scheme.

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.

 

Day on Diversity at the University of South Carolina

I am participating as a discussion leader and speaker for a day on diversity at the University of South Carolina 14 April 2016. Below are my notes which may be of value to some addressing race and class in both social and educational contexts.

University of South Carolina

April 14 1:30 pm

Svec. M., & Thomas, P.L. (2016). The classroom crucible: Preparing teachers from privilege for students of poverty. In A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

http://www.heinemann.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Confronting-Privilege-to-Teach-About-Privilege.pdf

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/my-redneck-past-a-brief-memoir-of-twos/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/i-dont-belong-heremy-otherness-my-privilege/

April 14 6 pm

“How do we look at systemic issues of equity in institutional settings?”

20 minutes

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, Chris Emdin

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul Gorski

No Caste Here? Toward a Structural Critique of American Education, Daniel Kiel

Abstract:

In his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that in the United States, there was “no caste here.” Justice Harlan was rejecting the idea that American society operated to assign preordained outcomes to individuals based upon classifications, including racial classifications. This Article questions whether Justice Harlan’s aspirational assertion accurately reflects contemporary American education. Identifying: (1) multiple classification mechanisms, all of which have disproportionate racial effects, and (2) structural legal, political, and practical impediments to reform, the Article argues that the American education system does more to maintain the nation’s historical racial hierarchy than to disrupt it. This is so, the Article suggests, despite popular agreement with the casteless ideal and popular belief that education can provide the opportunity to transcend social class. By building the framework for a broad structural critique, the Article suggests that a failure to acknowledge and address structural flaws will preclude successful comprehensive reform with more equitable outcomes.

Privilege

Racism, classism

deficit perspectives (word gap, achievement gap, grit)

Paternalism

Accountability v. equity — academics and discipline policies

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/grit-education-narratives-veneer-for-white-wealth-privilege/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/are-racially-inequitable-outcomes-racist/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/race-and-education-a-reader/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/what-these-children-are-like-rejecting-deficit-views-of-poverty-and-language/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/revisiting-james-baldwins-black-english/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/race-and-education-a-reader/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/recommended-reaching-and-teaching-students-in-poverty-paul-c-gorski/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/a-crack-in-the-dam-of-disaster-capitalism-education-reform/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/understanding-poverty-racism-and-privilege-again-for-the-first-time/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/bearing-witness-hypocrisy-not-ideology/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/responsibilities-of-privilege-bearing-witness-pt-2/

http://www.heinemann.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Confronting-Privilege-to-Teach-About-Privilege.pdf

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/thomas-race-matters-in-school-discipline-and-incarceration-opinion-columns-the-state/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/criminalizing-black-children-begins-in-our-schools/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/creating-crime-criminals-to-justify-deadly-force/

http://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1184&context=jec

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy

My privilege is easily identified in my being white and male, but it is the story of my life that better reveals my enormous privilege established by my mother when I was a child.

I entered formal schooling with such a relatively high level of literacy and numeracy that from those first days I was labeled “smart”—a misnomer for that privilege.

From Green Eggs and Ham to Hop on Pop, from canasta to spades, from Chinese checkers to Scrabble—games with my mother and often my father were my schooling until I entered first grade. And none of that ever seemed to be a chore, and none of that involved worksheets, reading levels, or tests.

Formal schooling was always easy for me because of those roots, but formal schooling was also often tedious and so much that had to be tolerated to do the things I truly enjoyed—such as collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of comic books throughout my middle and late teens. I was also voraciously reading science fiction and never once highlighting the literary techniques or identifying the themes or tone.

During my spring semester, I spend a great deal of time observing pre-service English/ELA teachers, and recently I had an exchange on Twitter about the dangers of grade retention, notably connected to third-grade high-stakes testing.

And from those, I have been musing more than usual about how formal school—how English/ELA teachers specifically—destroy literacy, even when we have the best of intentions.

From the first years of K-3 until the last years of high school, students have their experiences of literacy murdered by a blind faith in and complete abdication to labeling text by grade levels and narrow approaches to literary analysis grounded in New Criticism and what I call the “literary technique hunt.”

Misreading the Importance of Third-Grade Reading

As I have addressed often, reading legislation across the U.S. is trapped in a simplistic crisis mode connected to research identifying the strong correlation between so-called third-grade reading proficiency and later academic success.

Let’s unpack that by addressing the embedded claims that rarely see the light of day.

The first claim is that labeling a text as a grade level is as valid as assigning a number appears. While it is quite easy to identify a text by grade level (most simply calculate measurables such as syllables per word and words per sentence), those calculations entirely gloss over the relationship between counting word/ sentence elements and how a human draws meaning from text—key issues such as prior knowledge and literal versus figurative language.

A key question, then, is asking in whose interest is this cult of measuring reading levels—and the answer is definitely not the student.

This technocratic approach to literacy can facilitate a certain level of efficiency and veneer of objectivity for the work of a teacher; it is certainly less messy.

But the real reason the cult of measuring reading levels exists is the needs of textbook companies who both create and perpetuate the need for measuring students’ reading levels and matching that to the products they sell.

Reading levels are a market metric that are harmful to both students and teaching/learning. And they aren’t even very good metrics in terms of how well the levels match any semblance of reading or learning to read.

The fact is that all humans are at some level of literacy and can benefit from structured purposeful instruction to develop that level of literacy. In that respect, everyone is remedial and no one is proficient.

Those facts, however, do not match well the teaching and learning industry that is the textbook scam that drains our formal schools of funding better used elsewhere—almost anywhere else.

Remaining shackled to measuring and labeling text and students murders literacy among our students; it is inexcusable, and is a root cause of the punitive reading policies grounded in high-stakes testing and grade retention.

The Literary Technique Hunt

By middle and high school—although we continue to focus on whether or not students are reading at grade level—we gradually shift our approach to text away from labeling students/ texts and toward training students in the subtle allure of literary analysis: mining text for technique.

Like reading levels, New Criticism’s focus on text in isolation and authoritative meaning culled from calculating how techniques produce a fixed meaning benefits from the veneer of objectivity, lending itself to selected-response testing.

And thus, the great technique hunt, again, benefits not students, but teachers and the inseparable textbook and testing industries.

The literary technique hunt, however, slices the throat of everything that matters about text—best represented by Flannery O’Connor:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

In other words, “A poem should not mean/But be,” as Archibald MacLeish explains.

Texts of all genres and forms are about human expression, about the aesthetic possibilities of creativity.

No writer, like no visual artist, writes in order to have the words or artwork replaced by the reductive act of a technocratic calculating of meaning through the algebra of New Criticism.

To continue the hokum that is “reading level” and to continue mining text for techniques—these are murderous practices that leave literacy moribund and students uninspired and verbally bankrupt.

The very best and most effective literacy instruction requires no textbooks, no programs, and no punitive reading policies.

Literacy is an ever-evolving human facility; it grows from reading, being read to, and writing—all by choice, with passion, and in the presence of others more dexterous than you are.

Access to authentic text, a community or readers and writers, and a literacy mentor—these are where our time and funds should be spent instead of the cult of efficiency being sold by textbook and testing companies.

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

John Warner, writer and visiting instructor of first-year writing, posted yesterday the provocatively titled I’m Never Assigning an Essay Again [1]. And kept the ball rolling this morning on Twitter:

That’s right, it appears Warner is swearing off essays and students in his role as a writing instructor for first-year college students.

And let me add fuel to the fire by stating: .

I immediately pounced on Warner’s post and Tweets by sharing a key article I come back to often—especially in my work at a selective liberal arts university: The Good Student Trap by Adele Steele.

“The odd thing about life is that we’ve been taught so many life-less lessons,” Steele laments, and then hits the key point about how school creates the “good student trap”:

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it.

Until the formula doesn’t work, of course. “All that changes once you find that studying history or art or anthropology can be so much more than just jumping through hoops,” Steele explains. “Your academic pursuits can lead to new experiences, contacts, and jobs. But so much disappointment has resulted from misusing college, treating it as school instead of life [emphasis added].”

And here is where my work as an educator significantly overlaps with Warner’s two assertions: (1) the need to end the template-approach to essays that exists almost exclusively in formal classroom settings, and (2) the inherent failure of training young people in student behaviors, which are like the canned essay, unlike human behaviors in the real world.

So in most of my classes, we start by having frank discussions about behaviors of students and how they appear if we step back from them. For incoming first-year students, I typically start with the need to use the restroom during class.

K-12 formal schooling has equated normal human urinary and bowel needs with something just short of a high crime. In K-12 schooling, your restroom needs must be conditioned to the school’s schedule, and when that fails, you must raise your hand and ask permission.

In college, however, you simply get up and go to the restroom.

This transition away from the K-12 dehumanizing of students to normal adult behavior helps my students begin to investigate how we (professor/students) behave in class settings, how they should view their roles in learning (doing assignments instead of “homework,” and completing the learning experiences for themselves and not the professor), and what scholarship means instead of “being a student.”

I have linked the end of the school essay and the call for my students to drop student behaviors as essential for the sort of education I believe all young people deserve, a liberatory one.

These goals merge in my writing-intensive courses in which I ask students to stop behaving as students and to begin to behave as writers (and what that entails is a long process we explore throughout the semester)—so that we can learn to write together in ways that serve their personal, academic, and career wants and needs.

I hope more educators follow Warner’s lead—although these sorts of transitions I ask of my students are painful—and that we can all soon come together by swearing off essays and students.

[1] See his post from the next day also: Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay

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.

Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers”

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB in order to examine the impact of ESSA on the growing “bad teachers” narrative found in political and media commentary on the state of education in the U.S.

My speculations have now been given credence, notably Stephen Sawchuk’s 50 Years of Research Show Good Teaching Matters. Now What? at his Teacher’s Beat blog for Education Week.

Sawchuk’s post confirmed for me that the “bad teachers” drumbeat will continue so I posted a comment, one that expressed my frustration and linked to my post above:

Please let’s stop the bad journalism on teacher quality.

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/addressing-teacher-quality-post-nclb/

Please let’s stop treating Education Next as a credible publication.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors (http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/teachers-matter-so-do-words):

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).”

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007) (https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/2123.pdf):

“Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

Sawchuk himself replied:

This is the kind of comment that makes me crazy. I very explicitly wrote that of the IN-SCHOOL FACTORS affecting achievement, teacher quality seems to matter most. Both Coleman in his study, and Goldhaber in other publications (and me in my own reporting elsewhere) have noted that out-of-school factors account for more of the overall variance in scores. You prepare teachers, Paul — so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.

And this prompted two more comments from me:

You are aware of the horribly skewed public and political view of teacher quality, and the brief nod to “in-school” does not identify how small teacher quality is related to measurable student outcomes (less than unexplained/error).

But please identify where I have in my post or any of my work ever taken this position: “so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.”

Erodes your credibility further, after treating Education Next as credible, to discredit me with a false characterization of my position.

And (which directly quotes from my own blog calling for addressing teacher quality with vulnerable students):

From my blog post linked (to refute your mischaracterization):

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

All of which resulted in Sawchuk adding:

And moreover, I encourage you try to engage constructively on the blog, rather than beginning with personal attacks.

Here, although Sawchuk has posted again, addressing how to couch teacher impact as an in-school factor, I want to highlight what I think is a very important distinction, one at the root of bad education journalism.

First, I believe Sawchuk is in fact a very good education journalist, and although I do not know him personally, I am confident he is also a good person with good intentions.

I also want to note that I have been confronting for some time now “bad journalism,” but I have never once accused anyone of being a “bad journalist”—attacking the person.

Yet, one of the most prominent aspects of “bad journalism” has in fact been a relentless and often careless narrative about “bad teachers” (the people, the professionals) and not “bad teaching.”

So, as I have argued before, the problem at the core of bad education journalism is ironically that many journalists covering education are good journalists—taking the “objective” pose and refusing to evaluate the credibility of the “both sides” approach to journalism.

For me to confront “bad journalism” (the act and not the people) for demonizing people and a profession, “bad teachers,” is my own effort not to make the same mistake I am challenging.

Sawchuk’s recent blog post, then, I am certain feeds into the “bad teacher” narrative; I also cannot believe he doesn’t realize that.

I think as well it is telling that he had my blog post link, but chose to make a fairly nasty and provably inaccurate swipe at my intentions—to discredit me and not address my argument (thus, personal); and then when was given ample evidence, chose again not to address his actions, but instead accused me , a second time, of something I did not do.

My blog and most of my public work is searchable online. I have been confronting “bad journalism,” but I have not attacked “bad journalists.”

Virtually every mainstream journalist, however, has run with the “bad teacher” narrative.

I am struck by that important distinction, and regret that journalists covering education believe that they have the right to criticize teachers (often without any background in teaching), but are offended when their own journalism is exposed for failing to provide credible investigations of much needed reforms in pubic education as well as our broader society.

Nonetheless, I am sorry Sawchuk read my post as a personal attack, and I regret that his option to respond to that misinterpretation has been to misrepresent my own intentions and public positions on the complicated ways we must address teacher quality.

See Also

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

On Professionalism and Good Intentions: More on Education and Journalism

Coda

Last night, I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News covering the Zika outbreak in Florida.

What struck me about the coverage is that the report included Dr. Walter Tabachnick, an expert on infectious diseases, and in a follow up story, the reporter is a doctor, Dr. Jon LaPook. That second story also uses a doctor and researcher, experts on transfusions, as the primary sources.

I must emphasize that no business leader or CEO, no think tank leader, and no members of Doctors for America were included in the coverage.

How to Become a “Good Teacher”

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For a very long time in the U.S., the conventional wisdom has been that good schools were the key to just about everything—each child’s future, the nation’s economic survival, you name it.

More recently, that fantasy has narrowed to good teachers as the the “most important thing [fill in the blank].” And as I have examined, moving legislatively from NCLB to ESSA is unlikely to change that mantra, as delusional as it is.

So, if you began reading this in hopes of my analyzing why or why not to use VAM or any other myriad of teacher evaluation instruments, I must gently recommend your time may be better spent reading a volume of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fantasies, or take a stab an Ursula K. Le Guin.

Instead, this is a story, a true story about yesterday morning, a true story about yesterday morning and every year leading up to that during my 30-plus-years teaching career.

There is a powerful symbiotic relationship between being a teacher and a writer. Having just blogged about turning 55—using Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” to help me wrestle with aging—my mind was primed for attending the 2016 South Carolina Council of Teachers of English annual conference with three of my four students currently certifying to teach high school English.

This was the first professional conference and presentation for the three candidates, and it was a bit of a homecoming for me since I have been a career-long educator in SC, but haven’t attended this conference—packed with friends, colleagues, and former students—in several years.

I have always enjoyed students, my students, and I have always rejected the “don’t be friends wit your students” mandate as shallow and dehumanizing. (What the hell is there about friendship that is a negative characteristic? I have to ask, musing as well that people who make such bold claims must have really lousy friendships.)

If any student of mine offers friendship, I am always deeply honored by the gesture. It ranks equal to their respect for me as a person and appreciation of my credibility as a teacher.

So the conference was also a wonderful few days for the four of us to weave together informal teacher talk with just being four English nerds, and people. They also gave me opportunities to confront the tension all students and young people feel around teachers and adults: Whether or not they can be their authentic selves without risking judgment.

Don’t worry; I am vividly aware of how fortunate I am that this is my profession.

When Saturday morning rolled around and the presentation loomed at 10:45 AM, my students and I had ample time because of the structure of the day to set up our technology and for them to practice and prepare for an hour before the presentation.

They were each excited and nervous in their own ways (for one practice run, I was asked to leave the room). When game time rolled around, we had a solid crowd drift in—many friendly faces of my career included.

I offered a brief framing of the presentations—designed around the problem that being an English major does not necessarily prepare someone to teach writing—and then each of my three pre-service teachers shared her 10-minute talk, supported by a PowerPoint that I scrolled through in support.

And then it happened.

I felt the urge to cry well up in me, my chest, my eyes. I had already been overwhelmed by recognizing that in the room were four former students of mine as well as my three current students presenting.

But it hadn’t quite risen to my consciousness until that moment—a moment in which these three students of mine were stunning, smarter and more professional that I could have ever mustered when I was their ages or even 10 years older, and my former students in the audience were eagerly engaged, contributing wonderfully in the discussion at the end.

It was then I had my closing comments, anchored by a simple realization: “If you want to be seen as a good teacher,” I said to the audience, “then just have good students,” as I motioned to the three presenters and the the four former students in the audience.

If you think this is cheesy or self-deprecating, I don’t want to be rude, but you probably haven’t taught—or if you have taught, maybe you shouldn’t.

After the presentation, a former student who is now a teacher educator herself lingered talking to my current students, praising them and the work I do (she is vividly aware of the challenges of both being a K-12 teacher—since she was an outstanding ELA teacher herself—and being a teacher educator).

And as I listened, I knew even more clearly than I have always felt that I am not just every year of teaching I have ever taught, but I am every student I have ever taught.

I am left with a paradox—one that powerfully refutes the simplistic calls for “good teachers” and the relentless pursuit of quantifying “good teachers”: If you want to know if I am a good teacher, spend some time with my students, but then don’t be eager to give me too much credit for how wonderful they are.

We did all this wonderful together.

[Reposted at The Answer Sheet]