Public Schools Provide Market Pressure for Charter, Private Schools to Improve

Decades of research now reveal that charter and private schools do not produce student achievement superior to existing public schools.

Since politicians and education reformers are fully committed to charter and private schools, we have reason to be optimistic that existing public schools now provide the market pressure necessary for charter and private schools to improve:

  • Public school provide community-based education guaranteed to all students in that community, rendering the need to choose or wait for that choice to create the sort of education children deserve unnecessary.
  • Public schools by law fully serve English language learners, high-poverty students, minority students, and special needs students—those students under-served and even denied access to charter and private schools.
  • Public schools seek and foster experienced and certified teachers.
  • Public schools respond to local control and directly to tax-payers those schools serve.
  • Public schools are committed for decades to the communities they serve.
  • Despite often being underfunded and demonized in the mainstream media, public school students’ achievement is about the same as charter and private school students who attend better funded and highly praised schools.
  • Exceptional public schools should serve as models for the performance of all charter and private schools—without regard for students served and without any review of the data supporting that exceptional status.

In the coming years, we must call for adequate and robust research on the market pressure public schools are creating for improving our stagnant charter and private schools.

Quality of So-Called “Education” Journalism Actually Low

In both my May Experience course on education documentaries and my foundations in education course, we view and discuss the 2008 HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High:

Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many.

Although many scenes are powerful, one in particular remains disturbingly relevant in 2015: The camera captures with a voice-over students taking the standardized test that is being field-tested for students (no stakes), but will be high-stakes for the school and teachers; many of the students are shown with their heads down, essentially making no effort on the test.

Hard Times ends by noting that the administration has been replaced and Douglass High (Baltimore, MD) joins one of many narratives that too often we read about in the on-going era of high-stakes accountability: failed schools, schools “taken over” by the state, closed schools.

A few years ago, I was working on an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), but I was challenged about my outline of the accountability movement in South Carolina by the editor. Just for context, I began teaching in SC in 1984, when the first implementation of accountability began, linked to higher teacher pay, greater educational funding, and the start of the standards/high-stakes testing movement.

The editor insisted that accountability was a child of the late 1990s, but I was able to send her links to the first SC laws in the late 1970s and explained my own life as a teacher at a school where we were actively teaching to the exit exam in the early and mid-1980s (including double-tracking students in math and ELA courses as tenth graders to help them pass the tests to graduate).

What do these two topics above have to do with each other?

For thirty years, journalism addressing education and more specifically education reform has been inadequate to the point of being a huge part of the education reform problem.

Take for yet another example this piece from The Hechinger Report (and a repost in Education Week): Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low.

The maps, data, and serious tone are likely to have masked the flippant headline as well as terse “gotcha” lede: “It turns out that the stakes for this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are not quite as high as they might seem.”

Seems all that opt-out nonsense and teacher caterwauling has been for naught, right?

Just as I suspected. As the article clarifies early, “both sides” are truly out-of-bounds:

“I think the stakes are either overstated or understated depending on which side of the argument you’re on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Both sides need to take a step back and just take a look at this map.”

As one point of concern, however, let’s consider another piece in the same publication: More than 5,000 Mississippi third-graders could be held back this year for low reading scores:

Results of the new third-grade reading test announced Thursday that aimed to make it tougher for students to advance if they don’t read at grade level could mean 15 percent of the test-takers will repeat third grade.

Some 38,000 public school students took the Third-Grade Reading Summative Assessment, widely known as the “third-grade gate,” created under state law to address lagging reading skills and prevent the practice of “social promotions.”

I wonder how these children being mis-served by callous legislation refuted by decades of research on grade retention and rejected by the National Council of Teachers of English feel about flippant and misleading journalism? [1]

Where has the mainstream press examined that grade retention doesn’t have “two sides,” but one very clear position supported by evidence?

Where has the mainstream press examined that standardized testing remains biased against racial minorities, the impoverished, English language learners, special needs students, and females?

Where has the mainstream press exposed that the entire accountability era has failed?

Don’t bother looking, the mainstream media is too busy being snarking, inadequate, and lead by the nose in the era of press-release journalism that has coincided with educational accountability.

The press is a willing participant in the “miracle” school lies, as long as they are about charter schools [2], but quick to vilify teachers who cheat.

Journalists serve as bridges between a more technical and complex world (political, academic, etc.) and the general public, many of whom spend little time beyond the headlines and a few sentences at the beginning and maybe the handy-dandy charts, graphs, and maps.

So let me return to the claim that “both sides” are misrepresenting the stakes surrounding the on-going accountability/standards/testing game that has now lingered for thirty years in the U.S.

Please, mainstream media, identify for me and your audience any states in which accountability/standards/testing are not ultimately geared toward high-stakes for students, teachers, and schools? (Note: That data point, by the way, would be 0).

And since all aspects of accountability are linked ultimately to high-stakes, in what way is this incomplete, misleading, and snarking “report” helping anyone—especially the children who have been and are now having their lives irrevocably changed due to inexcusable legislation with no basis in solid research?

The original breezy piece now includes an UPDATE, but even so, the essential problem remains that most people will see only the headline, maybe the lede, and then the maps. The conversation has been established by this piece even to its shoddy conclusion that includes a convenient Oliver North passive voice evasion:

All of which is to say, yes, the tests are important. Decisions will be made based on how students perform on them [emphasis added]. But the vast majority of states will use the scores only as one measure in a web of other factors when making staffing decisions. And most states have no plans to use the scores to make student advancement decisions.

Although the process would probably be pointless since journalists are trained to chase “both sides” (which tends to be one side that is credible and then another that is not), this piece could have been saved to some degree by talking with educators and assessment experts who could share that in the evidence around exit exams, grade retention, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores, a clear pattern has emerged: even when test scores are “one measure in a web of other factors,” those scores either distort that “web” or ultimately become the determining factor in that “web.”

As I have detailed before, at universities that use a “web” of factors to determine college admission, the SAT, even when weighted low, serves as a gatekeeper as those “other factors” cancel each other out. In other words, “one measure in a web of other factors” is a political scam being perpetuated by a non-critical press.

In the accountability game, this reality is even uglier since there is only one constant in the standards/testing movement: the standards and tests are constantly changing.

If anyone wants to begin to understand the dual disasters which are the accountability movement of recent history and the historical failure of providing children of color and impoverished children the educational opportunities they deserve, I suggest avoiding the mainstream press and simply spending some time with Hard Times at Douglass High.

The documentary is a hard watch, but its stark and complex examination rises above simplistic and breezy claims that trivialize children and educators in ways that occur daily in mainstream education journalism.

[1] See Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style and Mississippi Reader.

[2] See Bruce Baker’s excellent The Willful Ignorance of the NJ Star Ledger.

Kurt Vonnegut: “What other advice can I give you?”

After surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and then decades as a chain-smoker, U.S. author Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007 felt tragi-comic since it came from tripping while walking down stairs.

In the wake of his death, the world has been offered an expanding universe of Vonnegut including an authorized biography and greater attention paid to his visual artwork, first offered as comic doodles in his novels such as Breakfast of Champions.

Shields KV bioKV drawingsBreakfast of Champions KV

Vonnegut’s fame came relatively late in the 1960s and 1970s and was spurred in part because of his popularity with college students, who gravitated to his dark humor and counter-culture messages in Slaughterhouse-Five. But Vonnegut also built a career as a public speaker, notably at college graduations.

SlaughterhouseFive KV

As an avid reader and occasional Vonnegut scholar, I continue to understand better the complexities of Vonnegut the person and the persona, indistinguishable in his novels and his public talks, but remain drawn to his enduring messages of love, kindness, and hope.

“You will find no lies in Vonnegut’s words of advice,” explains Dan Wakefield, writer and lifelong friend of Vonnegut, adding in his introduction to a collection of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches: “He is one of the truth tellers of our time.”

Nice KV

Vonnegut excelled in bending and blending genres, and in his graduation speeches, he both paid tribute to the form, mocked it, and gave it a new life, one only possible from the creator of Kilgore Trout, himself the embodiment and personified satire of pulp science fiction writers.

Sumner KV

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

As a writer, Vonnegut bristled at being labeled a science fiction writer, argued that no one could teach someone to write (while working at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and explained that he wrote by crafting a series of jokes, having developed as a child an enduring love for his sister and slapstick.

Slapstick KV

Vonnegut’s contradictions and mis-directions are on full display in his graduation speeches, where he often began by addressing directly both the purpose of commencement talks (giving advice) and the futility of such ceremonies.

“We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well,” Vonnegut began at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia on May 15, 1999:

This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women—what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.

If graduation speeches are meant to punctuate ceremony, then Vonnegut was going to throw cold water on ceremony.

If graduation speeches offer one last moment for sage advice from elders to the young, Vonnegut was going to say something to displease adults and disorient the young.

But always wrapped inside his curmudgeon paper was a recurring gift, one that tied all of his work together: Vonnegut was tragically optimistic and even gleeful about this world.

On cue, then, at Agnes Scott, Vonnegut rejected the Code of Hammurabi, revenge, and admitted he was a humanist, not a Christian, adding:

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Finally, to those young women, Vonnegut concluded:

I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

A Socialist Non-believer Preaching Love

If Vonnegut was anything, he was a proud Midwesterner, haling from Indiana, who reveled in invoking the name of Eugene V. Debs, a rarely acknowledged voice for workers throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century and central inspiration for Hocus Pocus.

Hocusa Pocus KV

Vonnegut as freethinker, then, always stood before graduation audiences, disheveled and wild-haired in the tradition of Mark Twain, the embodiment of the tensions created by college education—where young people often discovered everything their parents feared young people would discover.

The great irony of Vonnegut as graduation speaker was that his perch as counter-culture icon provided him the opportunity to express the central beliefs that, in fact, were what the adult world should want from the young.

Vonnegut thanked graduates for pursuing education, but then apologized for the mess adults had left them to face.

At Butler University in Indiana on May 11, 1996, Vonnegut celebrated his homeland, where he witnessed:

People so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it.

People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it.

And as was typical of his joke making, Vonnegut, acknowledged atheist, turned to the Bible at the end: “As I read the book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.”

He lamented, then: “There’s a lot of cleaning up to do,” and “[t]here’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.” But out of this mess, Vonnegut reminded the graduates: “And, again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!”

One cannot help hearing always in the background of Vonnegut as public speaker, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater imploring:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

God Bless You KV

Vonnegut as a graduation speaker implored us all to pay attention to the things that matter. These moments are ceremonies, yes, but important reminders in these times we agree to pause before moving on.

See Also

“reading a biography (in the absence of you)”

Thomas, P. L. (2013, April). Looking for Vonnegut: Confronting genre and the author/narrator divide. In R. T. Tally, ed., Critical insights: Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 118-140). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press.

—–. (2013, January). 21st century “Children’s Crusade”: A curriculum of peace driven by critical literacy. Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), 15-30.

—–. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.

—–. (2009). “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”: The fundamental flaws in fundamentalism according to Vonnegut. In D. Simmons (Ed.), New critical essays on Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 27-45). New York: Palgrave.

—–. (2006). Reading, learning, teaching Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Peter Lang USA.

In-Press: Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect (Peter Lang USA)

In-Press: Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children (Peter Lang USA)

P.L. Thomas, Paul R. Carr, Julie Gorlewski, and Brad J. Porfilio, eds.

[Draft cover, original artwork by A. Scott Henderson]


Table of Contents

Introduction: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

P. L. Thomas, Paul R. Carr, Julie Gorlewski, and Brad J. Porfilio, editors

Section One: Theoretical Framework

Chapter One: Public Education and the Ethics of Care: Toward a Politics of Kindness?

Rachel K. Brickner

Chapter Two: Are We Educating Our Children Within a Culture of Care?

Michael Burger

Chapter Three: No Excuses for “No Excuses”: Counternarratives and Student Agency

Sharon M. Chubbuck and Brandon Buck

Chapter Four: Empathic Education for a Compassionate Nation: A Pedagogy of Kindness and Respect for Healing Educational Trauma

Lee-Anne Gray

Section 2: Pedagogies of Kindness and Children 

Chapter Five: Renewing the Confucian Tradition: Kindness and Respect in Children’s Everyday Schooling

Jiacheng Li and Mei Ni

Chapter Six: “When I explain it, you’ll understand”: Children’s Voices on Educational Care

Maria K. McKenna

Chapter Seven: Prekindergarten Policy and Politics: Discursive (Inter)play on Readying the Ideal Learner

Angela C. Passero, Carrie L. Gentner, and Vonzell Agosto

Chapter Eight: Nurtured Nature: The Connection Between Care for Children and Care for the Environment

Chiara D’Amore and Denise Mitten

Section Three: Curricular Dimensions of the Pedagogies of Kindness

Chapter Nine: Love, Learning, and the Arts

Jane Dalton

Chapter Ten: Aesthetic Reading and Historical Empathy: Humanizing Approaches to “Letter From Birmingham Jail”

Jason L. Endacott, Christian Z. Goering, and Joseph E. O’Brien

Chapter Eleven: Re-Storying “Progress” Through Familial Curriculum Making: Toward a Husbandry of Rooted Lives

Sarah Fischer

Chapter Twelve: Music Education, Character Development, and Advocacy: The Philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki

Karin S. Hendricks

Chapter Thirteen: Tough Kindness: Reconciling Student Needs and Interests in 1940s Black Progressive High Schools

Craig Kridel

Chapter Fourteen: Doodles, Birds, and Abstract Words: The Experience of Caring

Karinna Riddett-Moore

Chapter Fifteen: No More Disrespect: Teaching All Students to Question Right and Wrong in History

Laura J. Dull and Diana B. Turk

Section Four: The Political Economy of the Pedagogies of Kindness

Chapter Sixteen: Peace Education About the Lives of Children

Candice C. Carter

Chapter Seventeen: Acknowledging and Validating LGBT Identities: Toward a Pedagogy of Compassion

A. Scott Henderson

Chapter Eighteen: Reclaiming Kindness, Courage, and Compassionate Justice in Difficult Educational Times

Ursula A. Kelly

Chapter Nineteen: A Critical Pedagogy of Care and Respect: What Queer Literacy Pedagogy Can Teach Us About Education for Freedom

Cammie Kim Lin

Chapter Twenty: Toward Pedagogies of “Senseless Kindness” in Critical Education

Michalinos Zembylas, Robert Hattam, and Maija Lanas

Author Biographies

Charter Scam Week 2015

It’s Charter Scam Week again, and we can conclude that charter advocacy has revealed itself in the following ways:

  • Charter advocacy cannot be about improving student achievement since charter school consistently have a range of outcomes similar to public and even private schools once student populations are considered.
  • Charter advocacy cannot be concerned about resegregation of schools by race and class since charter schools are significantly segregated.
  • Charter advocacy is a thinly veiled attempt to introduce school choice as “parental choice” despite the U.S. public mostly being against school choice.
  • Charter advocacy is tolerating at best and perpetuating at worst schools for “other people’s children”—a system that subjects minority and high-poverty children to limited learning experiences, extensive test-prep, and authoritarian/abusive disciplinary policies.
  • Charter advocacy chooses to ignore that charters underserve some the most challenging students, ELL and special needs students.
  • Charter advocacy also ignores that nothing about “charterness” distinguishes charter from public schools.
  • Charter advocacy has committed to the (dishonest) “miracle” approach to demonizing public schools, and abandoned the original ideal of charter schools as pockets of experimentation (means and not ends) for the improvement of the public school system.

The problem for charter advocacy is that the evidence is overwhelmingly counter to nearly every claim in favor of charter schools.

Charter Scam Week 2015: A Reader

What, Exactly, Are We Celebrating About Charter Schools?

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

Should SC Increase Charter School Investment?

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

Don’t Buy School Choice Week

No Excuses for Advocacy Masquerading as Research

Idealizing, Misreading Impoverished and Minority Parental Choice

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Twitter Truth (and The Onion Gets It Again)

Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]

Anatomy of Charter School Advocacy

On Children and Kindness: A Principled Rejection of “No Excuses”

It’s Time to Stop Treating Black and Brown Kids Like ‘Other People’s Children’

Racial Segregation Returns to US Schools, 60 Years After the Supreme Court Banned It

Why Charter Schools Are Foolish Investments for States Facing Economic Challenges

The Similarities Between the Charter School Movement and the War on Drugs

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

“No Excuses” and the Culture of Shame: The Miseducation of Our Nation’s Children