Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

Each time there is a flurry of comments about grades on social media, I am compelled to advocate for de-grading and de-testing the classroom. Also, each time I make my case, many people offer lukewarm support wrapped in a great deal of skepticism about those practices in real-world classrooms.

My career as an educator has had two nearly equal spans of about two decades each—first as a high school English teacher in a rural public school, and second as a current professor in a selective university where I teach in the education department but also have two first-year writing seminars each fall.

I both learned and practiced over my first decade of teaching the need to de-grade and de-test my classes, notably to support effective writing instruction. So I must stress here that my endorsing de-grading, or at least delaying grading, is grounded in my work as a teacher in a very traditional high school setting where I still had to issue interim reports and quarterly, mid-term, and final grades.

And my entire career, of course, has been working with students who expect grades, students who are often disoriented by and even disturbed by my atypical approaches to grades and assessment.

Virtually all of us who teach, regardless of level or type of school, will have to issue grades at some point. Even as an avid proponent of no grades and no tests, I must assign course grades, and I must fulfill obligations for assessments, such as midterm and final exams.

In our real-world classrooms, then, I am practicing and calling for delaying grades, while also increasing significantly feedback on authentic assessments that require and allow students to revisit their work as a journey to greater understanding and deeper learning.

And, yes, my practices and arguments are primarily grounded in my commitment to literacy instruction, mostly writing, and my educational philosophy, critical pedagogy, as well as my skepticism about knowledge acquisition (I embrace content as a means, not an ends, of teaching).

While I am no fan of compromise, I do have a deeply pragmatic streak; therefore, I try to be very clear that I am not advocating some idealistic set of practices from a rarified teaching situation that isn’t applicable to other educators.

Here I want to outline what real-world practices I have for many years implemented and currently implement that merge well, I think, with my belief in de-grading and de-testing with entrenched and often non-negotiable expectations of teaching.

Establish minimum requirements of participation and artifact production as mandatory for course/class credit. My syllabus and daily schedules clearly state that students must complete assignments and submit all artifacts both throughout the course/class and then as a final portfolio. Those minimum requirements I establish are non-negotiable and students are not allowed to pick and choose which to fulfill. In other words, I do not average grades and I do record an F for any student who fails to complete and submit all of the minimum requirements. (See minimum requirements detailed in my first-year writing syllabus.)

Delay grading of assignments and eliminate high-stakes of grades and rubrics. Once participation is required (for example, students must draft, submit essays, meet for conferences, and submit rewrites) for course/class credit (a final grade), teachers are given more space to offer feedback without grading—thus delaying a grade until students have had opportunities to take risks while practicing new learning. One example from teaching Advanced Placement Literature helps illustrate how even numerical feedback can work in this context. I shared with students A.P. Literature rubrics for previous test writing prompts, and then I did assign practice essay responses the appropriate 9-point scale grade; however, students knew these were recorded but did not factor into their course grade (other than needing to be completed). The 9-scale number was feedback for their understanding of where their work stood and how we could improve for the actual test in the spring. Overwhelmingly, my students participated fully in the practice sessions (they had an authentic goal of doing well on the A.P. test), and noted that other teachers translating these A.P. scale scores to class grades inhibited their work and attitudes about the assignments. I learned in these classes that my rejecting grades and rubrics could be translated into more authentic uses of grades and rubrics as feedback and tools for learning by simply eliminating the stakes with those grades and rubrics.

Invite students into conversations about grades. The best concession I have made to de-grading my classes is to acknowledge that for students grades are a powerful reality. Now I invite students to initiate conferences with me about their current grade in my classes at any point and as often as they need throughout a course. While I give no grades on assignments, even as they revise, I will discuss with students what grade an assignment would deserve, and why, and what their grade status is in a course at any point along the way. The caveat, always, is that we do this in conversation (not by email or in writing) and that we recognize these estimations could change significantly as the course and their revisions progress.

Negotiate grade scales with required grade submissions in your school. My de-grading and de-testing practices have always been complicated by interim reports, midterm and final exam requirements, final grades, and the expectation that grading policies, scales, and calculations be posted on my syllabi. Most of my strategies in these contexts remain grounded in my minimum requirements approach. For interim reports and midterm grades, I submit only S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) based on each student’s current status in relationship to minimum requirements at that point in the course; S is for students who have fully complied and I is for those missing work. I remind students and others that the I will become an F at the end of the course/class if students fail to fulfill the assignments. Midterm and final exams—both required at my university—have become different types of assessment: group and whole-class discussions, presentations, and portfolio assessment. And instead of posting how I calculate and average grades, and what grade scale I use, I include my minimum requirements statement on my syllabus.

I offer the above as no template or even demand, but one example of how I have tried to blend my educational philosophy with real-world expectations and non-negotiables.

I live under no delusion I can transform our formal education system into my ideal where we have no grades and no tests. But I do practice what I believe are more effective versions on these norms by delaying grades and lowering the stakes when students receive both rich and even numerical/grade feedback on assignments while they are exploring new or complex learning.

In short, this is my argument against those who brush away my de-grading and de-testing arguments as not realistic; they are.

But I also must push against those who believe my practices somehow encourage students not to be engaged in their assignments. I have witnessed for almost four decades now that the opposite is, in fact, true.

One reason I began this journey to minimum requirements instead of grading is that I watched students routinely take zeros (not do assignments at all) and still receive course credit. They were playing and manipulating the grade/averaging game of school.

Easily over my career, most of my students have participated fully and punctually with my assignments; overwhelmingly, they have shared that they feel more relaxed and engaged with their assignments without the immediate threat of grades.

While the novelty of my teaching and assessment practices cause some distress for students, traditional grades and the finality of summative assessments are far more harmful to student engagement and learning.

There is no perfect world—neither the world of traditional grading nor the ideal world without grades and tests.

But we can create a better world for our students, one in which they produce work and learn in a supportive environment where our primary role is mentoring through feedback instead of being the dreaded agent of evaluation.

My argument, then, is not for perfect or ideal, but better, better for our teaching, better for our students’ learning.

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Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

From Education Week to the Hechinger Report to The Answer Sheet (the latter two typically good sources for education journalism), the media simply cannot resist publishing misguided takes on how we do and should teach reading.

Citing the National Reading Panel as credible (it isn’t), misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy (as somehow anti-phonics), hand-wringing about third-grade reading ability, and taking broad uneven swipes at teacher education—these are the hallmarks of bad journalism and garbled takes (usually with ulterior motives) on the reading wars.

Since I simply cannot continue to make the same points over and over, I suggest below a bit of actual reading to clarify why the media continually misrepresents the reading wars:

Here is a final note worth emphasizing: Phonics-intense and phonics-only reading instruction is a gold mine for textbook publishers, reading program shills, and the testing industry.

Consider carefully the who and why of public commentaries screeching about reading instruction, especially when the arguments are full of easily identifiable holes in their credibility and logic.

Chicken-Little Politics and the Curse of Testing (and Standards) in South Carolina

I entered education as a high school teacher in South Carolina in the 1984-1985 academic year, the first year of a significant teacher pay raise and a pivotal ground zero in the state’s accountability era established in late 1970s legislation.

Over about four decades, SC has revised or changed educational standards six or seven times and implemented about the same number of different state and national tests.

And what hath this curse of testing and standards wrought for SC?

South Carolina students bomb the ACT, falling behind Mississippi, announces an article by Paul Bowers explaining:

South Carolina’s graduating class of 2018 came close to dead-last in the nation on the ACT college readiness test, painting a grim picture of a state that has languished near the bottom of education rankings for decades.

This year’s graduates placed 50th among the states and Washington, D.C., on the ACT, according to composite scores based on the test’s English, Reading, Math and Science sections.

Only Nevada’s students did worse.

The chicken-little politics of accountability has been fulfilled in ways that assure politicians, the public, and the media will declare schools, teachers, and students a failure. Yet again, and again, ad nauseam.

Let’s try something different here, ways to interpret better this data from the ACT.

The first key point about these scores is that SC is experiencing bureaucratic insanity—doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The problem with eduction in SC has little to do with test scores, which overwhelmingly reflect what the problem is: Poverty and inequities grounded in that poverty as well as racism.

In fact, this response to the article exposes how misguided the entire process is:

While political and popular gazes remain fixed on test scores and standards (curriculum), we have failed to acknowledge that the quality—or even presence—of standards (and the concurrent curriculum) have no clear impact on measurable student outcomes.

The accountability era has not worked in SC, and it never will.

Ever-new standards and ever-new tests are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Here, then, are a couple more ways we can and should respond to the ACT scores.

Why is SC requiring all students to take a test to measure college readiness when a much smaller percentage of those students plan to enter college? And why this rush to prepare all students for college when it remains unaffordable for many, if not most, SC residents?

What assures that test scores on the ACT are mostly about teaching and learning, instead of poverty, racism, or even student effort (in other words, what assurance do we have that students have taken this test seriously)?

And finally, a significant failure of the chicken-little politics of test scores in SC is the misguided urge to rank (see the problems here).

What if we consider that SC is in the bottom quartile of states by poverty, and then, what if we concede that standardized tests are at least 60% and possibly over 80% linked to out-of-school factors (not any quality of schools, standards, or teaching) such as poverty and affluence? SC should be near or at the bottom of any rankings because of the state’s abysmal record of class and rank inequity as well as a very long history of underfunding and ignoring public education—especially in the most vulnerable communities.

This most recent sky-is-falling media report is our own hellish Groundhog Day experience; this article has been written dozens of times over the past four decades, and it can be recycled dozens of more times in the future.

Unlike the befuddled Phil (Bill Murray) in the movie, we actually can bring this nightmare to a stop.

If we have the political and public will, the media will be able to give this dark fairy tale a rest.

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

If You Are Grading, You May Not Be Teaching

Throughout my career of about two decades as a high school English teacher and then approaching another two decades in higher education (as a teacher educator and first-year/upper-level writing professor), I have avoided and delayed grading as well as eliminated testing from my classes.

My experiences with first-year and upper-level writing instruction have further confirmed that if you are grading, you may not be teaching.

Specifically, teaching citation and scholarly writing has revealed a problem that directly exposes why grading often works against our instructional goals.

First, let me stress again that the essential problems with grading include how traditional practices (such as assigning grades that are averaged for quarter and/or semester grades that are then averaged for course grades) tend to blur the distinction between summative and formative grades, inhibiting often the important role of feedback and student revision of assignments.

The blurring of formative and summative grades that occurs in averaging, as I have confronted often, deforms teaching and learning because students are being held accountable during the learning process (and thus discouraged from taking risks).

To briefly review the problems with grades and averaging, let me offer again what my major professor argued: Doctors do not take a patient’s temperature readings over a four-day stay in the hospital in order to average them, but does consider the trajectory of those readings, drawing a final diagnosis on the last reading (or readings). Thus, averaging is a statistical move that distorts student growth, deforms the value of reaching a state of greater understanding.

As I have detailed before, consider 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 could be 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.

But another problem with grades and averaging that speaks to this post is something my students taught me when they complained about their math classes. Several students informed me that they had never passed a single math test, but had passed math courses.

The trick? Students earned bonus points for homework, etc., that were added to each test, on which students never reached a passing score.

This process means that cumulatively students never acquired so-called basic or essential math skills, but passed the courses, resulting in course credit that grossly misrepresented student learning.

Therefore, returning to my claim that grading may not be teaching, when we subtract for so-called errors to assign grades, we are allowing students to move through the learning process without actually learning the element being graded. In most cases, I believe, that strategy is teaching students that the element really doesn’t matter.

This dynamic is particularly corrosive when teaching scholarly writing and citation. Citation is one area of writing that doesn’t have degrees; you either cite fully or you don’t.

Many students, similar to the math students noted above, have never reached any level of proficiency with citing because they have mostly had points deducted for improper citation and then gone on their merry way, never having learned to cite fully.

If citation is essential, to grade and never require mastery of citation have two very negative consequences: (1) students do not attain an essential skill (and may exit formal education without the skill), and (2) students fail to understand the importance of drafting, receiving feedback, and revising.

Academic writing is challenging for developing young writers since it demands complex technical demands (such as citation and document formatting) and high expectations for content and style. Students need years and dozen of experiences reading and writing academic writing across multiple disciplines and varying conventional expectations.

But we cannot expect students to acquire the nuances of citation if we simply grade and never allow or expect them to cite fully and properly as an essential aspect of an academic writing experience.

As I make this case, I want to stress that as writing teachers we are trying to balance expectations for students and provide them low-stakes opportunities to draft with little or no consequences.

Students should have both writing assignments that demand minimum proficiency with key skills such as citation and writing contexts that foster and allow taking risks and working outside conventions.

Grading, I witness daily, inhibits both of those in ways that suggest the non-graded writing class is the best opportunity for students to learn in holistic and authentic ways that reveal themselves in student writing samples.

Because of their experiences being graded, I struggle to help students see that citation, grammar, mechanics, style, and content all work in unison either to support or erode their authority as writers and scholars.

I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessary areas to learn, grow, and excel.

As I end my thirty-fourth year teaching, I cannot stress hard enough that if you are grading, you may not be teaching, and your students likely are not learning the very things you value enough to assess.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.