It is a disturbingly easy list to make: police officers shooting/killing defenseless black males and females, Rush Limbaugh, OJ Simpson, Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, ad infinitum.
Those shielded by privilege (wealth, race, celebrity, status) from the consequences of being held accountable for their actions.
And what is most disturbing is that among accountability hawks, those are the people least likely to be held accountable.
In the accountability era of education reform, the accountability hawks have been left unscathed even as they work to create school choice (public funds sent to private schools outside the accountability paradigm), more charter schools (relieved of accountability), and uncertified teachers (Teach For America).
Those accountability hawks, the politicians and the billionaire education hobbyists, are never held accountable as each policy and reform-of-the-day fails before s/he moves on to the next Great Reform.
Complicit in this failure to hold accountability hawks accountable have been spineless edujournalism and edupresses that have abdicated their role to press release journalism in the service of the edureformers.
And thus, as
Just this week, in Education Week — the field’s leading national newspaper covering K–12 education — a blogger by the name of Matthew Lynch published a piece explaining his “Five Indisputable [emphasis added] Reasons Why You Should Be Implementing Value-Added Assessment.”
I’m going to try to stay aboveboard with my critique of this piece, as best I can, as by the title alone you all can infer there are certainly pieces (mainly five) to be seriously criticized about the author’s indisputable take on value-added (and by default value-added models (VAMs)). I examine each of these assertions below, but I will say overall and before we begin, that pretty much everything that is included in this piece is hardly palatable, and tolerable considering that Education Week published it, and by publishing it they quasi-endorsed it, even if in an independent blog post that they likely at minimum reviewed, then made public.
Shame on Lynch, shame on EdWeek, but this is hardly anything out of the ordinary.
This is edujournalism as we have known it for decades now.
All hail the accountability hawks, and let neither evidence nor accountability deter their march!
Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:
Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”
It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.
There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:
Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”
Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.
The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.
And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.
In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.
Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:
To the Editor:
As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.
Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.
Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.
The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.
In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.
I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.
My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.
While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.
Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.
If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.
Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).
Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.
See the abstract:
Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.
This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.
And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.
Here’s just a taste:
Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).
Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:
How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?
Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?
Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.
At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.
Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”
As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.
But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.
So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:
- Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
- Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
- And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.
This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:
But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.
SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.
For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?
Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.
Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”
A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.
Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.
As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.
Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.
So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?
The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:
- Failure Factories
- Lessons in Fear
- Who’s My Teacher Today
- Hear From the Kids
- Reports Spur Visit From Education Chief
Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.
And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.
That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.
Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.
One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:
Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?
The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.
You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.
And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.
The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?
The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.
Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”
That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.
And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.
Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.
If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.
Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.
Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.
Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.
Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.
Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.
Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.
Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.
Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.
I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.
As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.
We both can and should do better.
It is generally obnoxious to say “I told you so,” but since I am often accused of being obnoxious even when I am not intending to be, I’ll risk this: I told you so.
While speaking recently to an education law class of doctoral students, I revisited my argument that using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate, retain/fire, and reward teachers has an incredibly negative consequence: Teachers are being incentivized to use their students as mechanisms for their own job security and pay and to hope their students outperform other teachers’ students.
Being perhaps too snarky two years ago I framed this as using students as weapons of mass instruction.
I have always been disappointed that my point has gained little traction and even prompted a great deal of push back, but I am now pleased to direct everyone to a new analysis by Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Will VAMS Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?
Johnson, I believe, makes a comprehensive and compelling case against VAM that in many ways reinforces my argument.
The analysis begins by acknowledging the rise in concern about teacher quality as well as offering a detailed challenge to overly simplistic considerations of teacher quality and the role it plays in student achievement.
Johnson notes that the political and bureaucratic rise in embracing VAM has received considerable push back by teachers, building to her focus for the analysis:
In this article I bring an organizational perspective to the prospect of using VAMS to improve teacher quality. I suggest why, in addition to VAMS’ methodological limitations, reformers should be very cautious about relying on VAMS to make decisions that teachers view as important. Because the wide-scale use of VAMS is very recent, scant research exists with which to answer the organizational questions about the intended and unintended consequences of using VAMS in making consequential staffing decisions. However, relevant research about teachers and school improvement, coupled with my own experiences working with states and districts that are implementing new teacher evaluations, lead me to suggest that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.
Instead of focusing on individual teacher quality, Johnson argues for a more comprehensive approach:
Recent studies have persuasively documented the benefits of systematic efforts to improve student learning through schoolwide improvement initiatives (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010; Little, 1982; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001;Rosenholtz, 1989). Because students move through schools from class to class or grade to grade, they are better served when human resources are deliberately organized to draw on the strengths of all teachers on behalf of all students, rather than having students subjected to the luck of the draw in their classroom assignment. Successful schoolwide improvement increases norms of shared responsibility among teachers and creates structures and opportunities for learning that promote interdependence—rather than independence—among them. By contrast, a strategy for school improvement that focuses substantially on identifying, assigning, and rewarding or penalizing individual teachers for their effectiveness in raising students’ test scores depends primarily on the strengths of individual teachers.
Broadly, evidence shows that schools should function within a culture of collaboration and not competition (another “I told you so,” sorry).
The unintended consequences, then, far outweigh the claimed advantages of measuring, identifying, and retaining “good” teachers. Johnson identifies the following unintended consequences:
Therefore, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need subjects and schools to seek safer assignments, where they can avoid the risk of low VAMS scores. Meanwhile, some of the most challenging teaching assignments would remain difficult to fill and likely be subject to repeated turnover, bringing steep costs for students….
Given that reality, it seems possible that when districts rely on VAMS for a substantial part of teachers’ evaluations, their teachers may pull back from sharing collegial responsibility for the students in a school….
As more states require that teacher evaluations include both classroom observations and data from standardized tests of student achievement, principals who are not instructional experts will be left to interpret discrepancies between what they see in the classroom and what they read on a VAMS score sheet. Will they doubt the validity of their observations or the accuracy of the VAMS score? If they are uncertain about judging instruction or believe VAMS to be more objective and precise than their own professional judgment, value-added scores may unduly influence their decisions….
In line with Coleman’s (1988) theory about social capital, this suggests that a school would do better to invest in promoting collaboration, learning, and professional accountability among teachers and administrators than to rely on VAMS scores in an effort to reward or penalize a relatively small number of teachers.
Ultimately, commitments to VAM prove to be based on ideology, including a conscious effort to ignore evidence—a great irony considering VAM advocates are calling for dat-driven teacher quality policies.
Addressing the inequity in every child’s life outside of school and also recalibrating the culture of school—toward collaboration and away from competition—would both reap great rewards for children and society.
Plowing forward with VAM will, I guarantee, continue to bleed our field and our schools dry.
For Further Reading
The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, Derek W. Black
Merit pay could revive child labor, Stephanie Jones
My home state of South Carolina is an ideal lesson in education reform.
SC is a high-poverty state (in the bottom quartile of affluence in the U.S.) that committed early to the accountability era built on state standards and high-stakes tests (exit exams, school report cards, etc.).
And as we watch winter turn to spring in 2015, ain’t nobody happy with public schools in SC. Also, SC continues to struggle with pockets of extreme poverty and segregated affluence as well as entrenched racism, hostile policies for workers, and Teflon-conservative politics.
That should lead one to question the process of accountability—although apparently it doesn’t.
Two examples, however, can help us here.
First, despite the demonstrable failure of the accountability era to improve schools adequately over three decades by focusing on test data to evaluate school quality and student achievement, the test-mania has now been targeted on teachers with the endless consideration of how best to use value added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers.
And here comes the irony: If we are determined to keep our eyes focused on test data, why are we not recognizing what those tests tell us over the long haul?
The second example was highlighted for me at Schools Matter, where two charts from longitudinal NAEP data were posted, one of which I have recreated in a different format to highlight phases in education:
Before us now, after ample time has passed experimenting with accountability, we can drawn some tentative conclusions : (i) the Civil Rights era from the 1950s into the 1970s (for example, SC schools did not fully integrate until early 1970s) when the focus was on equity seems to have fostered greater narrowing of the achievement gap than either (ii) the state-based accountability era or (iii) the NCLB accountability era.
And so: A lack of accountability, standards, or “good” tests was never the problem in U.S. public education, but as my home state of SC shows, a crippling history of inequity driven by racism, classism, and sexism is the primary plague reflected in the measurable outcomes found in our schools.
It is time to choose equity over accountability for our education policy. In fact, it is well past time to hold the advocates of accountability accountable for misreading their own data.
 FairTest has offered a more detailed analysis, drawing similar conclusions.
In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments , K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.
Ericsson’s key point includes:
Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.
Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.
Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.
Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.
Education Has Failed Research, Historically
John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.
Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.
Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:
Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)
But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.
Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.
In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:
The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)
Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.
“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).
By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued
Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence
The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).
Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.
When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.
Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.
We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.
As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.
LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.
LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.
LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.
LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.
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