Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students

“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”

But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.

Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.

Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.

Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.

Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.

In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.

Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”

This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.

To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.

Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”

Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.

Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.

Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.

“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.

But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.

Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.

There simply is no right way to do those.


See Also

University of Georgia professor explains his ‘Asperger’s Advantage’ and disabling assumption of disorder, Peter Smagorinsky

Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, Tham Khai Meng

Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Cinco de Mayo 2016: A Reader

Let us hope we can resist the urge to trivialize and appropriate the wonderful history, traditions, and people of Mexico because of the silliness that is making a holiday another way to churn up crass commercialism (a redundant term). [Also, lost in the shuffle, today is the birthday of Karl Marx.]

So below, please read a gathering of important articles, somewhat loosely connected because they have crossed my path.

First, let me note that since I have relentlessly criticized edujournalism of late (and it is well deserved criticism), I start with an edujournalism unicorn—a very good piece on NAEP.

Read on:

The simple truth is that NAEP is not designed to provide causal explanations. It’s a test given every two years to a representative sample of students who happen to be in fourth, eighth, or twelfth grade that particular year. It does not follow students over time, so it’s impossible to say that a policy or practice “caused” the results….

Put together, the findings paint a picture of unequal opportunities to learn challenging content. Low-performing students spend less time explaining their reading or doing projects, and more time on test prep. Once again, these are correlations: they do not suggest that these patterns caused the low performance. But why do they exist? What can be done about them? That’s the challenge for educators and policy makers.

Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Black students will always underachieve when they are perceived as needing fixing.

The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.

Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.

White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.

And now, a musical extra:

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River

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.

Even Technocrats with Good Intentions Sustain Classroom Colonialism

Kassie Benjamin offers a powerful confession at Jose Vilson’s blog. Benjamin—like many educators including myself—became an educator firmly holding to the belief that education is the great equalizer, the lever that changes people’s lives and society for the better.

However, Benjamin explains: “Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.”

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin names the assimilation Benjamin confronts as “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)

Emdin points a finger at urban “no excuses” charter schools as contemporary versions of traditional schooling created to “fix” Native Americans. For example, Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

But we should also look at a number of policies that are thinly veiled mechanisms for assimilation/colonialism.

Just as one example, tracking remains a robust practice in U.S. education, I believe, because it appears to help the so-called top students (mostly white and relatively affluent) even though a great deal of evidence shows tracking hurts the so-called struggling students (mostly black/brown and impoverished).

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

Policy makers, administrators, and teachers promoting and implementing practices, then, who are in effect perpetuating classroom colonialism may often have good intentions.

Charlotte Danielson provides us here an ironic and important model as she confronts teacher evaluation:

The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.

Danielson, of course, continues to criticize the recent push for extended accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing into how we evaluate, retain, and pay teachers (popularly known as VAM, for using “value added methods”).

The irony comes as Danielson slips into what I believe is the central problem driving much of the classroom colonialism challenged by Benjamin, Emdin, Samudzi, and Paul Gorski: Danielson’s alternative to the failed good intentions of teacher evaluation is just another technocratic version of teacher evaluation.

Colonialism in traditional schooling survives because education is a reflection of our society. Schools will never be transformative at the social level until formal education is unlike our inequitable social structures—until formal schooling serves our vulnerable students’ needs first by honoring them as fully human instead of framing them through deficit lenses.

School discipline begins and reflects the racially inequitable mass incarceration of the wider society. Tracking reflects and perpetuates our class stratifications.

Nearly every aspect of school policy and practice is a mechanism for assimilation—not transformation.

Education and education reform are trapped in a technocratic vision that can only replicate our society.

Education reform and the commodification of education are bound by the mantra “My technocratic vision is better than your technocratic vision.”

It isn’t about standards, but the new and better standards.

It isn’t about high-stakes testing, but the new and better high-stakes tests.

And not once, not once, has the promise of the new been realized in any ways that serve impoverished students, black/brown students, or English language learners.

However, nearly always, the policies and practices in place have served well (or at least not impeded) the whitest and wealthiest.

Emdin invokes the metaphor of invisibility throughout his dismantling of “white pedagogy” and call for “reality pedagogy.” But I am drawn to my English teacher and existential roots by the concluding image of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: the guillotine.

Camus’s main character Meursault describes that “the guillotine looked like such a precision instrument, perfect and gleaming….[T]he machine destroyed everything: you were killed discretely , with a little shame and with great precision” (p. 112).

The efficiency of the technocratic mind, the guillotine, that served the interests of the ruling elites at the expense of anyone else who did not conform, assimilate.

The technocrats, even with good intentions, maintain a classroom colonialism that honors “assimilate or die.”

 

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

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.

Today in “Don’t Believe It”

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

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

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

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

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

See the full review here.

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

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

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

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

Revised and Available: De-testing and De-grading Schools (Peter Lang USA, 2016)

Co-edited with Bower, J. (2016). De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization. Revised ed. New York, NY: Peter Lang USA.

313058_cover RIP Joe

Book synopsis

A century of education and education reform, along with more than three decades of high-stakes testing and accountability, reveals a disturbing paradox: education has a steadfast commitment to testing and grading. This commitment persists despite ample research, theory, and philosophy revealing the corrosive consequences of both testing and grading in an education system designed to support human agency and democratic principles. This revised edited volume brings together a collection of updated and new essays that confronts the failure of testing and grading. The book explores the historical failure of testing and grading; the theoretical and philosophical arguments against testing and grading; the negative influence of tests and grades on social justice, race, class, and gender; and the role that they play in perpetuating a deficit perspective of children. The chapters fall under two broad sections. Part I, Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stake Accountability in Education, includes essays on the historical, theoretical, and philosophical arguments against testing and grading. Part II, De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform, presents practical experiments in de-testing and de-grading classrooms for authentic learning experiences.

Contents: Rick Wormeli: An Unexamined Pedagogy Harms – Lisa Guisbond/Monty Neill/Bob Schaeffer: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from This Policy Failure? – Fernando F. Padró/ Michael F. Hawke/Laurie M. Hawke: Assessment and Quality: Policy-Steering and the Making of a Deus ex Machina – Anthony Cody: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble – Lawrence Baines/Rhonda Goolsby-Smith: America’s Obsessive-Assessment Disorder – Julie A. Gorlewski/David A. Gorlewski: Solidarity and Critical Dialogue: Interrupting the Degradation of Teacher Preparation – Morna McDermott: Feeding the World = Reading the World: Let Them Eat Tests – Richard Mora: Bubble in B for Boredom – Brian R. Beabout/Andre M. Perry: Reconciling Student Outcomes and Community Self-Reliance in Modern School Reform Contexts – David L. Bolton/John M. Elmore: The Role of Assessment in Empowering/Disempowering Students in the Critical Pedagogy Classroom – Christian Z. Goering: «How Long Does This Have to Be?»: Confronting the Standardization of Writing Instruction with Teachers in National Writing Project Invitational Summer Institutes – Joe Bower: Telling Time with a Broken Clock: Moving Beyond Standardized Testing – John L. Hoben: The Grading Mousetrap: Narcissism, Abjection, and the Politics of Self-Harm – Arnold Dodge/Ruth Powers Silverberg/Katie Zahedi: Leadership Denied: Principal as Compliance Officer – Hadley J. Ferguson: Journey into Ungrading – Jennifer Magee/Mark Dziedzic: An Oath to Stop Degrading Students: A Story of De-grading an Elementary Classroom – P. L. Thomas: De-grading Writing Instruction: Closing the «Considerable Gap» – Brian Rhode: One Week, Many Thoughts – Lisa William-White: Striving Toward Authentic Teaching for Social Justice: Additional Considerations – P. L. Thomas: Yes, to Be Clear, I Am Anti-testing, Anti-grading.

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

My good friend and stellar colleague, Ken Lindblom, posted Should Students’ Grades Be Lowered for Lateness?, spurring a series of Tweets about grading late work.

Ken’s thoughtful post focuses on these foundational ideas:

As an educator, I try to base my decisions on a principle of authenticity. In other words, I try to make my decisions more on real-world norms than traditional school norms. I try to ensure that I am preparing students for the world beyond school, not for school. As a result, I try to make sure that the ways in which I assess students’ work is similar to the ways in which they would be assessed in a professional situation.

There are times when a professional can absolutely not be late: grant applications, proposals for conferences/speaking, . . . I’m not sure I can come up with a third example to make a series.

But adults can be late with almost anything else: publication deadlines, job evaluations, doctor’s appointments, taxes–even most bills have a grace period.

Here I want to tease out a few ideas related to feedback on student work (artifacts of learning), grades, and late work.

Like Ken’s concern for authenticity, I tend to work from a personal and professional aversion to hypocrisy based on 18 years teaching English in a rural South Carolina public high school and then 14-plus years in a selective liberal arts university, also in SC.

I have been practicing and refining de-grading and de-testing practices for over thirty years. Let me emphasize, since I have been challenged before, I have implemented—and thus currently advocate for—de-grading and de-testing in many school contexts, including public schools (not just at the university level).

So my path to rejecting grades and tests has many stages and elements. First, I had to confront that calculating grades bound only to averages often distorts grades unfairly for students. Mean, median, and mode are all credible ways to analyze data, and among them, in formal schooling, the mean (average) is both the norm and often the weakest.

I show students this simple example; a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment would be the 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

My conclusion has been this greatly challenges the value of assigning grades because those who control the rules, control reality.

Thus, I do not assign grades to any student artifacts of learning (and I do not give traditional tests). Instead I offer feedback that supports students as they revise and resubmit those artifacts.

However, I cannot refuse to assign students grades for courses. Therefore, another distinction I have come to appreciate is the difference between grading an assignment and determining a grade for a grading period or course.

Therein lies my approach to late work, but first, let’s consider adult hypocrisy.

In my 30-plus years as an educator at nearly every level possible, I witness daily teachers and professors who fail to meet deadlines (regularly); talk, do other things (grade papers), stare at their computers/smart phones, etc., during meetings; and behave in a number of ways that they do not tolerate by students in their classes, behaviors that negatively impact students grades.

I also drive daily with adult motorists who exceed the speed limit without any punishment—as most of us have come to realize a grace zone of staying less than ten mph over that limit. In other words, the real world of rules is much fuzzier than the rules of formal schooling.

These are the behaviors I see when I am confronted with student late work.

About late work, then, I have some clear policies. First, I would never change a grade assigned to an artifact of learning that distorts the actual quality of that artifact. A “B” essay is a “B” essay regardless of when it is submitted.

As an educator, my primary concern is student learning, and I suffer no delusions that when that happens is more important than if it happens. I also ascribed to Rick Wormeli’s dictum that fair isn’t always equal; thus, I do not allow very narrow expectations that I treat all students exactly the same override that I am there to serve each student as well as all students.

Next, I always record “lateness” and then consider that when I assign a grade for a grading period or course. If a student has one or two assignments late (clearly an outlier), I may ignore that when determining the grading period/course grade, but if there is a pattern of lateness, then the grading period/course grade must reflect this.

In other words, I believe we must separate artifact quality (the basis of grading period or course grades) from grading period/course grades.

Feedback and grades on artifacts of learning send students clear messages about what they produce (their learning), and then grading period/course grades send a message about the totality of their accomplishments as students.

So if we return to Ken’s context, we can imagine a manager telling a habitually late worker: “Your work here is excellent, but if you aren’t here on time, we will have to let you go.”

Especially in the recent thirty-plus years of standards, educators have fallen prey to standardization, and as a result, we have too often abdicated our professional autonomy and allowed technical norms to supplant our much more important goals and obligations, the human dignity and learning of each child assigned to our care.

And because most people have greater regard for medical doctors than teachers (sigh), I’ll end with an example my major professor offered in my doctoral program.

A patient is admitted to the hospital running a dangerously high temperature. After several days, during all of which the nurses record that patient’s temperature hourly, the doctor comes in, adds those temperatures, calculates the average, and refuses to release the patient, although the current temperature is 98.6.

Right, no medical doctor would allow the norm of averages to override her/his medical authority. And neither should educators.

See Also

Missing Assignments–and the Real World, Nancy Flanagan

The Perils of Late Work and How to Make It Count, Starr Stackstein