The Great Accountability Scam: High-Stakes Testing Edition

Among other teachers and education scholars, I have been making a case throughout my 36 years in education that has prompted mostly derision from edureformers, politicians, the media, and “no excuses” advocates; the position grounded in evidence includes:

  • Standardized and high-stakes tests are weak proxies for student achievement and teacher/school quality but powerful proxies for the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and communities.
  • And thus, important contributions made by teachers and schools to student learning are very difficult to measure or identify in any direct or singular way (either in a one-sitting test or linked to one teacher over one course, etc.).
  • Accountability structures do not and cannot reform in any substantive way teaching and learning; in fact, high-stakes standards and testing are likely to impact negatively complex and powerful teaching and learning in the name of democracy, human agency, and equity.
  • All in-school-only education reform, then, will appear to (and actually) “fail” as long as public policy does not first or concurrently address socioeconomic inequities such as healthcare, work quality and stability, food insecurity, safety and justice, etc.
  • Social and educational reforms are extremely complex and take far more time than political and public impatience allows; however, the proper political will should shift the U.S. social and educational reform toward an equity structure (not an accountability structure) in order to see observable positive change over time.
  • In-school equity reform must address teacher assignments, de-tracking course access, fully funding all in-school meals, fully publicly funding K-16 education, school discipline and dress codes grounded in restorative justice and race/class/gender equity, and student/teacher ratios.

Historically and currently, public education—as well as charter schools and private schools—serve well the students with the most race, class, and gender privileges and mis-serve inexcusably the most vulnerable students—black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students, and impoverished students.

Accountability does not and cannot address that gap; high-stakes testing measures that gap and often increases the inequity since the stakes are tied to gatekeeping in education and society.

Formal education in the U.S. has mostly reflected and perpetuated our national and regional inequities, and the claim that schooling is a “game changer” remains a deforming myth.

As a recent additional source of evidence for my claims, please see this study by Kenneth Shores, Pennsylvania State University and Matthew P. Steinberg, George Mason University:

The Great Recession was the most severe economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), we describe the patterns of math and English language arts (ELA) achievement for students attending schools in communities differentially affected by recession-induced employment shocks. Employing a difference-in-differences strategy that leverages both cross-county variation in the economic shock of the recession and within-county, cross-cohort variation in school-age years of exposure to the recession, we find that declines in student math and ELA achievement were greater for cohorts of students attending school during the Great Recession in communities most adversely affected by recession-induced employment shocks, relative to cohorts of students that entered school after the recession had officially ended. Moreover, declines in student achievement were larger in school districts serving more economically disadvantaged and minority students. We conclude by discussing potential policy responses. (Abstract)

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Dog in the Sink

She is five or six years old, my daughter, sitting in the backseat and requesting “Dog in the Sink” from the R.E.M. mix-tape I made her.

Mishearing the line “dogging the scene,” she renamed “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as she did several songs, including another favorite “That’s great it starts with an earthquake birds and snakes and aeroplanes.”

We spent a great deal of time in the car together. To and from school. To and from soccer practice. To and from soccer matches and tournaments.

Typically, my daughter would ask me to play songs, often R.E.M. since that is what I was listening to almost all the time, and to sing along while she watched me singing in the rearview mirror. Once she had the lyrics, she would tell me to stop, and she would then sing.

By the time she was 10 or so, she could sing all of “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And  feel Fine)”—much to the amazement of family and friends.

R.E.M. is re-releasing Monster, a 25th anniversary edition, so “Kenneth” has been on a loop in my head for several days.

The song permanently blurs with life with my daughter as a child, her asking about the end of “Kenneth” when “I never understood the frequency” becomes the closing “I never understood, don’t fuck with me.”

As she grew up, of course, she understood more and more of the lyrics, including the profanity. I never shielded her from the music I listened to so our adventure with music morphed a bit from those mostly innocent early days.

Another album just passing its 23rd anniversary is CAKE’s Fashion Nugget. My daughter was fascinated by “Nugget” as an early teen; it is profane and in your face.

When she would climb into the car with some of her soccer teammates, as we drove to lunch between matches, she would ask me to play “that song,” and I would survey the friends—”Your parents are ok with this?”—and we’d listen to “Nugget,” her face beaming.

I have several of these song moments permanently imprinted in my memory—my daughter singing “O, my, my, O, tell yea” unaware of “hell” as an option while singing along to Tom Petty, for example.

But as “Kenneth” has been on a permanent loop in my mind, I have realized that I struggle to recreate in those memories my daughter sitting in the back seat. I have this vague awareness of that, but I often lose her face and child self behind the more immediate image of my granddaughter, who I see often and spend a good deal of time interacting with in her carseat.

I will never get back “Dog in the Sink,” my daughter at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 …

I have lost forever a world of mixtapes and spending every waking moment in the service of a child.

“Kenneth” on a loop in my mind makes me very happy and deeply sad all at once.

I also will never again have a new R.E.M. album. I have, in fact, just redecorated my office, replacing some of the R.E.M. posters with The National—a band I found through R.E.M.

No photo description available.

I have always been haunted by Emily in Our Town, after her death realizing that we can’t and don’t look at anything hard enough in the moment.

“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth warns; we are too busy living to really appreciate the moment.

My daughter used to come down stairs and repeatedly run and jump on me on the couch. She was rambunctious and laughing. But I was too often easily exhausted by that.

It deserved more. It deserved the same care and attention as those times we spent in the car, me playing songs she requested and her eventually telling me to stop singing so she could.

I was too easily distracted in my 30s and 40s: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”; squandering, I would add.

I am better now in some ways. I will sit on the floor with my grandchildren, even when it is exhausting and even when I know it will last only a moment before they are off to something else.

I have sat hours quite still with each of those grandchildren in my lap, sleeping or watching TV or their iPad. I used to joke I was my granddaughter’s recliner.

It is a pose I am happy to hold—now.

We carry always with us these things we lose, these things we cannot hold onto no matter how deeply we want to make the world, time stand still.

It is a bit overwhelming to realize I have lost those images of my daughter as a child, her voice even, and her mannerisms and personality. All of that morphing into my granddaughter.

When I confuse the names of my daughter and granddaughter it may be the most honest moments of my life. They have piled up inside me in a way that I cannot untangle, a way that I would never want to untangle because I would be afraid of completely unraveling it all. Losing again what I have lost already.

“Papa, look!” my granddaughter demands as I am driving; I struggle to make her happy, but I have to explain I can’t turn around while driving.

I try to use the rearview mirror, but my granddaughter will have none of that. She wants my full attention, not some indirect reflection.

The rearview mirror was enough for my daughter.

It’s a shame mirrors reflect only the moment. It’s a shame we often don’t enjoy those moments.

Isn’t This What School Should Be About?

My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”

Skylar 5K artwork

“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.

Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.

This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.

She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”

At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.

She crawled out crying.

As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.

When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”

Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.

She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.

Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.

As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.

My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.

As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.

Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.

Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.

I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.

Sky and Brees

Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.

Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.

So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.

And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.

I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:

…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.

And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?

Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Crackers

Before my father graduated high school, he had a full set of false teeth. Finding—and later being able to afford—dentures that fit well were an important part of his life for sixty years.

Once his health began to deteriorate nearly as precipitously as his bank account in the last several years, that final set of dentures, lower quality and cost, made him look even less like himself than the disorienting transformation from aging and ill health—both making him enlarge, barrel-chested and swollen, as he simultaneously shrank in stature.

My father was a rough and rambunctious 1950s redneck growing up, losing teeth a few at a time from playing sports and the occasional fight. His dentist eventually decided to pull the last few and fit him with false teeth.

My mother, my sister, and I, then, never knew my father when he had teeth.

This was part of my 1960s childhood, a redneck life in Upstate South Carolina, my father’s home town. It seems fair to say that my mother was, as a North Carolinian raised mostly in Lexington and Lumberton, a hillbilly of sorts.

But theirs was no mixed marriage.

In fact, it took me many years, and well after I had moved out, to recognize the nuances of my parent’s slightly different Southern drawls and vocabulary. Both of my grandfathers had been painfully quiet men, although my maternal grandfather was equally painful in the slowness of his speech when he did (rarely) speak.

So I needed some distance to begin to acknowledge that this SC/NC couple had families who were often as unlike as like each other.

When my parents died a couple years ago, with those deaths shrouded in the ugliest possible consequences of an inadequate and inhumane healthcare system, I was pushed further into more fully and openly interrogating my redneck past.

Recently, I have been confronted, first, with Season 2 of Mindhunter focusing on the Atlanta child murders and the series’s characterization of KKK members, Georgia crackers, and next, with Ozark‘s fascination with distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies.

 

Over the years, I have been exasperated often with the portrayal of white Southerners in the media, entertainment, and even popular memoirs (such as Hillbilly Elegy and Blood Done Signed My Name).

Those representations range along a spectrum of cartoonish to romanticized that deeply distorts both the humanity of those of us from the South as well as the many serious flaws that do persist among poor and working-class white Southerners.

As a lifelong Southern redneck who grew into social awareness and continues to wrestle with that redneck past against a deeply held moral imperative toward social justice, I am constantly faced with a paradox—seeking ways to defend the accurate, complex, and often deeply flawed white Southern characterization while in no way defending its historical and current racism, sexism, and homophobia.

I cannot express often enough the tragedy that is the self-defeating South.

With this newest focus by the two series above on redneck, hillbilly, and cracker, I have been thinking about my toothless father and the ugly stereotype of the toothless redneck/hillbilly/cracker.

The broader stereotype of white southerners is that we talk grammatically incorrect (therefore, we are stupid) and we are often poor.

These stereotypes expose deficit and misguided perceptions of both language and poverty, but it is the “toothless” slur that draws my attention now.

I hear fairly often about poor Southern whites that they have less sense than teeth, or something like that. And while watching Ozark fumble through their interest in distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies, I have for the first time more clearly considered how damning the “toothless” slur is.

Being toothless among the poor has its roots in all sorts of inequity, mostly that poor and working-class Americans too often do not have access to affordable healthcare (including dental) or healthy food.

The “toothless” slur ignores that inequity but certainly reinforces the rugged individual myth: If only poor white trash would take care of their teeth!

Toothlessness is their shame, both cosmetic and as a sign of carelessness (if not the real ugly floor of all poverty shaming, laziness).

More recently than this Southern stereotype, this shaming of rednecks regardless of region, is the toothless meth addict, a characterization again grounded in shaming and perpetuating that the addict is solely to blame for the consequences of the addiction.

Watching both Mindhunter and Ozark, I think of my immediate family as well as the many, many rednecks of my life lived in SC. But I also have come to think very often of my toothless father.

With his better quality dentures and his crewcut, my father struck the pose of the handsome, hardworking white man of the mid-twentieth century South. He also believed in all of the great American myths about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps as well as the ugliest racist and classist narratives that were ever-present in his community.

My father and mother did everything they could to maintain the veneer that they had no past in being poor and they were not working-class, but middle-class.

IMG_0716

Keith, Rose, Paul, and Eydie Thomas— the family.

Their paradox was that they did in fact have a hand in their own disturbing dying days that were greatly accelerated and worsened by a harsh society and inhumane government that they endorsed until their last breaths.

It feels too much like a Poe short story, my being sometimes haunted by my father’s last pair of dentures that made him look cartoonish and pitiful, only a faint glimmer of the man I knew as a child. A powerful and all-too-happy young man who grew into massive forearms and a constant refrain of “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it” to anyone who asked how he was doing.

Until that last pair of dentures, I had lived with a different image, one recreated by the telling of stories by my father.

When I was very young, my father was play-wrestling with my mom (they were very playful young adults, together and with my sister and me). My mom feigned that she was in distress and called for me to help her.

Just a child, I ran over and kicked hard at my father’s head. He turned away untouched, covertly removed his false teeth, and then rolled back to confront me with a huge toothless grin.

I screamed and cried, as my father told the story, while my mom and dad laughed.

This was my childhood, but I cannot tolerate the romanticizing of white Southerners anymore than I can stomach the petty stereotypes driven by poverty shaming.

I have loved my parents and family very deeply while also being very angry at them and my hometown for all the hatred and the self-defeating politics.

Over the last few years, the media have become obsessed with struggling whites all across the U.S. Many are rednecks, hillbillies, and even crackers.

There is so much white fragility on display that I recognize now even more deeply how whites resist equity and hard truths in the U.S. while always hiding behind a very large and starkly white banner. Maybe “Christian nation” or simply “U.S.A.”

Or the most disturbing and red “Make America Great Again.”

Yes, there are distinctions among rednecks, hillbillies, and crackers—but those really do not matter as much as what they have in common, an inordinate power linked to their being white and an irrational anger toward a world finding ways to expose those privileges so that we can end them.

And walking through that world, I am the son of a toothless redneck.

From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.

Time to End the Charter School Distraction

The 21st century charter school movement in the U.S. has been at least a deeply flawed solution for a misunderstood problem. But charter advocacy has also suffered from a serious contradictory pair of arguments aimed simultaneously at traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools.

As stringent high-stakes accountability gradually ramped up for TPS from the early 1980s and through both the George W. Bush No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and the even more intense (and volatile) Obama administration, charter school advocacy increased, and those schools expanded across the U.S. driven by the argument that charter schools flourish because of their independence from bureaucratic mandates.

TPS suffered a series of ever-new standards and high-stakes tests, persistent narratives that they were “failing,” and a recalcitrant public and political leadership that refused to acknowledge the nearly crippling impact of social inequity on any school’s ability to effectively teach children.

Yet, at the same time, charter schools were routinely hailed falsely as “miracles” and neither the public nor political leadership seemed to care that research repeatedly revealed that charter schools simply did not outperform TPS (just as private schools do not outperform TPS). In short, charter schools have continued to float on advocacy and magical thinking even when we can clearly show that school type has nearly no impact on student outcomes—since those outcomes are far more significantly driven by out-of-school factors (home and community economic status, parental education levels, home security, access to food, medical care access, etc.).

Just as the Bush/Paige Texas “miracle” that spurred NCLB was soundly debunked, the Harlem “miracle” often cited by Obama/Duncan proved directly and indirectly (the many copy-cat charter “miracles” across the U.S., such as KIPP charter schools) to be mirages.

Like KIPP advocacy, however, the all-charter-school reality that has occurred in New Orleans after Katrina has also flourished on political and media misrepresentations.

An editorial in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has now offered one step in the right direction on charter schools in SC—but it fails to offer the only logical end-game concerning charter funding in this high-poverty state.

Yes, as the editorial notes after citing a Tulane study on charters [1]:

Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

As I have detailed dozens of times directly about comparing charter schools and TPS in SC, most charter schools are about the same or worse than TPS that are serving similar populations of students. When charter schools appear to be outperforming, typically those gains are mirages that distract us from the real causal differences—under-serving special needs students, under-serving English language learners, expanded school days and/or years that account for the “growth” being measured, private funding, relief from accountability that comparable TPS must follow.

A simple dictum here is that if we allowed TPS those same caveats, we would see absolutely no surface differences in test scores; a more complicated dictum is that if charter schools had to function under the nearly paralyzing spectrum of obligations that TPS have always addressed, those charter schools would be seen as failures also.

The harsh truth no one wants to confront is that formal schooling, regardless of the type, has a very small measurable impact on student achievement when compared to the relatively larger influence of out-of-school factors. Related to that harsh truth is that once vulnerable students enter formal schooling, they far too often experience even greater inequities because all school models (TPS, charter schools, private schools) both reflect and perpetuate inequities in their policies (teacher assignment, tracking, disciplinary policies, class size and course access inequity, etc.).

As some of us in education have been arguing for decades, education reform must be grounded in equity and in-school reform can succeed only as a companion to significant social and economic reform that addresses food insecurity, work stability, health care, and safety (what I have called social context reform).

Again, the P&C editorial has offered an important charge that “South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement” for charter schools. But simply closing failing charter schools is not enough since we should not be creating charter schools to begin with.

In fact, we should close all charter schools because the charter churn (and all school choice) is a wasteful and politically cowardly indirect approach to reform.

SC is a historically high-poverty state that simultaneously clings to self-defeating conservative politics. Neither social/economic nor education policy in the state serves well the very large vulnerable populations of the state, not the adults or the children.

The political rhetoric and the ideology it spreads are themselves mirages at best, and cruel lies at worst.

New Orleans since 2005 has erased and replaced a TPS system with a charter system, and still the narrative remains about the exact same—schools need reform.

Formal schools regardless of the type reflect the children and communities they serve. Formal schools are rarely change agents.

If SC or any state genuinely wants education reform that serves all students, we will first invest in our entire state in ways that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us and then we will re-invest in a public school system that fulfills the promise that every child has the greatest opportunity to learn that we can imagine.

Leaving equity in our society and our schools to the Invisible Hand is nothing more than a slap to the faces of the people and children who need us the most.


[1] This Tulane study has been repeatedly misrepresented by charter advocates; please see the following for a fuller and more complex picture of what that study can suggest, and what it does not:

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon