Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton

1 November 2016 Reader: “Matters of power, state violence, extreme poverty, institutional racism”

The rise of Trumpism and how to fight it, Dorian Bon

Even leaving aside the possibility of marauding, right-wing poll-watchers, other questions will have come up for readers of this website: Why is Donald Trump’s bigotry and aggressive chauvinism finding such a large audience? How can so many millions of people who don’t have millions in their bank accounts be planning to vote for him after everything we know?

More generally: Where is the momentum on the far right coming from? Where is it going? And what can be done to stop it?

Trump’s Inconvenient Racial Truth, Nikole Hannah-Jones

To be clear, I am not arguing that the man who called for the execution of the since-exonerated Central Park Five (and who still insists on their guilt) and who seeks nationwide implementation of the stop-and-frisk program ruled unconstitutional in New York City, and who warns that voting in heavily black cities is rigged, is a racial progressive who will enact policies that will help black communities. Nor am I saying black voters should buy what Trump is selling. (And they aren’t: A poll released last week by The New York Times Upshot/Siena College of likely voters in Pennsylvania found that “no black respondent from Philadelphia supported Mr. Trump in the survey.”)

What I am saying is that when Trump claims Democratic governance has failed black people, when he asks “the blacks” what they have to lose, he is asking a poorly stated version of a question that many black Americans have long asked themselves. What dividends, exactly, has their decades-long loyalty to the Democratic ticket paid them? By brushing Trump’s criticism off as merely cynical or clueless rantings, we are missing an opportunity to have a real discussion of the failures of progressivism and Democratic leadership when it comes to black Americans.

Dont Walk That Line! Why Schools Need To Create And Measure Positive Climates, Andre Perry

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

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

Researchers for this study pulled evidence from multiple studies from around the world to understand the relationships between socioeconomic status, school climate, and academic achievement to help academics and practitioners alike understand what a positive climate is and why ultimately it can boost academic achievement.

Why I Have No Sympathy for Angry White Men, Stacey Patton

Why isn’t anyone suggesting that these beleaguered White men respond to their relatively new “hard times” by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Where are the people calling on these beleaguered Whites to develop empathy and compassion for those who have long been suffering, like African-Americans and other people of color? Why do we need to understand this community? Why is the opposite never suggested as a potential option? Is it because White men are simply not willing to emerge from their bubble and acknowledge the humanity of those they deem “other?” Or is it because they are unable to see beyond their own reality?

What we’re witnessing is racist populism all over again. Trump is following a historical pattern by stoking the racism, but especially as a rich White man pitting disenfranchised poor White people against Black people and especially Black people in low-income areas, telling them to intimidate and attack them at his rallies and at the polls, much in the same way poor Whites were pitted against poor Black people by elite White people to ensure there wouldn’t be a class uprising.

“Trump is emancipating unbridled hatred” – Interview: Rina Soloveitchik, Judith Butler

Butler: What Trump is emancipating is unbridled hatred and, as we see recently, forms of sexual action that don’t even care about anybody’s consent. Since when did we have to ask women whether they are okay with being touched, or why? He does not actually say that, but that is exactly what he is indicating. It liberates people, their rage, and their hatred. And these people may be wealthy, they may be poor, they may be in the middle; they feel themselves to have been repressed or censored by the left, by the feminists, by the movement for civil rights and equality, by Obama’s presidency, which allowed a black man to represent the nation.

Unthinkable Politics and the Dead Bodies of Children, Henry A. Giroux

Matters of power, state violence, extreme poverty, institutional racism, a broken criminal justice system, the school to prison pipeline and the existence of the mass incarceration state, among other important matters, rarely if ever enter her discourse and yet these are major issues negatively affecting the lives of millions of children in the United States. And her alleged regard for children falls apart in light of her hawkish policies on global regime change, drone attacks and cyber-warfare, and her unqualified support for the warfare state. Her alleged support for children abroad does not capture the larger reality they face from when their countries are invaded, attacked by drones and subject to contemporary forms of indiscriminate violence. Rather than critique the US as a powerful engine of violence, Clinton expands its imperialist role around the globe. This is a key point in light of her defense of the rights of children, because her warmongering ideology puts children in the path of lethal violence.

Educators: “[N]ot the Time. . .to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”

In a major journal from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a teacher and scholar laments the current state of implementing the research in language: “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). [1]

And the discussion of that gap between research and classroom practices leads to this conclusion:

“Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. 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 [emphasis added]. 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. The game of Gossip is not for us.” (p. 94)

While those of us living our lives as teachers, especially teachers of literacy in K-12 settings or in teacher education, may recognize many points above in our current debates about education reform—including some of the debates that simmer below the surface of the workings of NCTE—this piece is by Lou LaBrant and was published in the January 1947 issue of Elementary English (now Language Arts).

More than six decades after LaBrant wrote about the gap between research and practice, More than six decades after she implores us that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance,” educators across the U.S. are faced with the failure of leaders, the public, and professional organizations in the face of the promise of universal public education and its potential to drive the great hope we call democracy.

The Locus of Authority: Our Time for Resistance

At the 100th anniversary annual convention for NCTE in Chicago (November 2011), I presented during a panel on the Council’s century of leadership in the field of literacy—reading from the essay above by LaBrant and suggesting how she would have responded to the current calls for Common Core State Standards (CCSS), increased testing, intensified value-added methods (VAM) for teacher accountability linked to those tests, and accelerating mandates driving teacher preparation and accreditation of colleges and departments of education.

I know from my work as the biographer of LaBrant that she was a powerful voice for the professionalism, scholarship, and teacher autonomy—including herself and every teacher with whom she interacted. LaBrant, in fact, during the early 1930s when enrolled in her doctoral program at Northwestern University, faced pressure while teaching English to implement required reading lists, textbooks, and benchmark testing, all of which she knew to be flawed practices.

What did LaBrant do?

She fabricated lesson plans with her roommate, the foreign language teacher, and submitted them each week while practicing the pedagogy she embraced—student choice in what they read and wrote, holistic instruction and assessment of literacy. At the end of the year, LaBrant and her students (yes, in the early 1930s) faced end-of-course testing, and LaBrant’s students received top scores. Consequently, she was praised by the principal in front of the entire faculty for her dedication to the prescribed policies.

This tension between bureaucratic mandates that seek to shift the locus of authority (consider Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”) away from the teacher and within the standards and tests designed and prescribed by the state is not entirely new (except for the intensity), but neither is the need for teachers to own their autonomy, their professionalism—to be that resistance.

Also at the 2011 NCTE annual convention, a convention of celebration, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, Carol Mikoda, Bess Altwerger, Joanne Yatvin, and Richard J. Meyer proposed a resolution: NCTE will oppose common core standards and national tests. [2] This act of resistance, this act of teacher autonomy and professionalism resulted in what Catherine Gewertz in the Curriculum Matters blog at Education Week describes as: “The National Council of Teachers of English was asked by a group of its members to take a strong stand against the common standards, but it declined to do so.”

This is a time when political leaders, the public, and national organizations have abdicated their moral obligation to create and maintain universal public education for all children as a sacred trust between a free people and the promise of democracy.

As the faculty of Garfield High School (Seattle, WA) take a principled stand against MAP testing as a beacon of hope in the fog of corporate education reform, this is also a time for all educators to shine every light of our autonomy on what is right and what is wrong in the day-to-day pursuit of teaching children.

“This is not the time for the teacher of any [student] to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

References

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

[1] Originally posted at Daily Kos (November 21, 2011) and cross-posted at Truthout (November 28, 2011). Reposting here as a call for solidarity among educators inspired by the resistance of Garfield High School faculty (Seattle, WA) to the corrosive impact of MAP and other elements of high-stakes testing in U.S. education. The original piece has been revised.

[2] Revised resolution passed: Resolution Proposal to Support: No Confidence in United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan