Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

References

Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/

Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) fernandadepaulag@aol.com [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/

Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/

Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle

Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

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On Public Schools and Common Core: Graff’s Critique of Ravitch

Are U.S. public schools failing, and if so, will implementing Common Core and next-generation tests as part of school accountability correct those failures?

At Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet, Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has challenged Diane Ravitch’s stance on the both public schools and Common Core, which he characterizes as follows:

“Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong.  “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.  But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”

Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system.  Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves.  So goes this argument.

Graff concludes: “I don’t buy it.”

While he concedes that Ravitch is correct about the negative impact of poverty and inequity on schools as well as the failure of many aspects of the reform movement (“more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization”), Graff argues that, based on his experiences as a professor, public schools are failing and poverty cannot be the sole cause: “Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.”

And thus, Graff aligns himself with the promise of Common Core standards, “which focus on precisely these ‘college readiness’ skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important” (See Mercedes Schneider’s response to Graff’s endorsing Common Core).

First, Graff’s characterization of Ravitch, I think, distorts how public school effectiveness should be described (and likely Ravitch’s position).

Public education is not failing the ways that reformers claim, typically based on raw test score comparisons (year-to-year in the U.S., international, state-to-state) and sweeping charges about “bad” teachers, public school monopolies (and lack of choices), and the negative influences of the status quo (often code for “unions”).

However, public schools are failing as they are overburdened by out-of-school influences (as long as we focus on standardized test scores, that influence remains the dominate problem facing education reform) and in the ways in which they perpetuate those social inequities (for example, tracking, inequitable discipline practices such as zero tolerance policies, rising segregation in public and charter schools, and inequitable teacher assignment including commitments to Teach for America for high-poverty minority students).

But the larger public school failure (the one I believe at the root of Ravitch’s “Public education is not broken”), however, is not that public education is failing the U.S., but that so far, we have failed public education. In other words, Ravitch’s argument is a call to reconsider our commitment to public education as part of the essential Commons and the need to reject market-based critiques and reform for that institution.

Here, Graff ignores that much of Ravitch’s Reign is, in fact, a call for reforms—which would be an odd thing to do if she in fact held as Graff claims that public schools are fine as they are.

Next, Graff’s reasons for endorsing the Common Core are ironically the reasons Common Core standards will never address the failures of public schools.

Since Graff and Ravitch highlight that public education struggles under the weight of poverty and inequity, we must acknowledge that there is nothing about Common Core (or any aspect of the accountability movement based on standards and testing) that addresses those inequities; in fact, a great deal of evidence suggests that high-stakes accountability simply labels inequity and often increases inequity—along with failing to achieve the goals often associated with accountability-based reform.

For example, there is nothing in Common Core that will change African American males being disproportionally suspended and expelled, nothing that will change African American and impoverished students attending majority-minority schools that are underfunded and staffed by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, nothing that will insure that minority and high-poverty students will have access to high-quality courses (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and nothing that will end the disproportionate retention of minority and male students (in fact, a growing trend of the accountability movement is retaining third grade students based on high-stakes test scores).

Finally, and directly drawn from Graff’s concerns about college students not burdened by poverty, is the claim that those students are not well prepared by public education.

Setting aside that every generation has bemoaned the failure of the children coming after them (including Aristotle), we must ask why those students appear not prepared for the demands of college work.

The answer, for example, lies in Graff’s experience with students analyzing text and writing original essays.

Applebee and Langer have explored what students are asked to do as student writers in middle and high schools. Their research reveals a powerful, but damning dynamic: English teachers of middle and high school know more than ever about best practices in the teaching of writing, but students do little extended writing and much of that best practice is never implemented in U.S. classrooms.

Applebee and Langer’s research appears to expose why Graff finds his students ill prepared for college demands related to text analysis and writing, but the most important pattern found by Applebee and Langer is the reasons students are not be challenged are the inordinate high-stakes demands of the standards and testing era under which U.S. public schools function.

College-bound students, currently and over the past thirty years, have disproportionately spent their time in English classes learning to write to prompts for AP exams, high-stakes state tests, and, since 2005, the one-draft, 25-minute essay on the SAT.

As a writing teacher of freshman at a selective liberal arts university, I can attest that Graff’s characterization of students’ ability to write autonomously and with authority is lacking, but unlike Graff, I recognize that the problem is grounded in high-stakes accountability.

I also recognize that the historical record of standards and testing reveal that Common Core and next-generation tests will not change the entrenched failures of the accountability era, and Common Core has no mechanism to shift traditional failures of public schools (the inequities I have identified above).

In the end, Common Core is continuing to dig even after we have found ourselves in a pointless hole.

As Deborah Meier explains, even if Common Core standards do align better with college readiness (and that claim falls short), we are still asking too little of students with that goals.

And that is the problem, ultimately, with standards-based education and education reform.

If schools are failing to meet the needs of children living in a free society—and they are—that failure can be traced to the narrowing of teacher and student expectations—the one guaranteed consequence of standards-based education about which we have ample evidence.

In ten years, political leaders and the public will be decrying the failures of public education, professors such as Graff will still bemoan the inadequacies of their students, and we will again hear demands for yet another round of new standards and new tests—standards and tests that must be world-class and address college readiness. And Common Core will be placed on the shelf with all the other disappointing trophies to how we continue to fail universal public education.

Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

For about two decades from my early 20s into my early 40s, my first (and I believed only) career was public high school English teacher. Around 2002, I moved to higher education where I am primarily a teacher educator but also maintain in part a role as a teacher/director of writing in our first year seminar program—meaning I have been a teacher now for 31 years.

Throughout my time as a K-12 public school teacher, I was most of those years a department chair, a position for which I received no stipend and no release time. Along with being a full-time doctoral student for 3 years and adjunct instructor at local colleges while remaining a full-time high school English teacher in the mid-1990s, I spent the last third of my K-12 teaching career also coaching soccer (at first, as head coach of both the girls and boys teams, and then as boys head coach). My coaching stipend, by the way, after taxes, added about $70 a month to my check, and I remained an uncompensated department chair throughout those years.

My first years teaching high school included five courses in a six-class-period school day (with a planning period and including my role as faculty sponsor/teacher of the journalism class) of about 30 (occasionally 35) students per class; each class required a separate prep (different courses with different textbooks for each class, totaling about 15 vocabulary, grammar, and literature textbooks I had to juggle along with learning to teach). From my first day teaching English, as well, I considered my primary responsibility to be the teaching of writing.

Since I kept a record of my work as a teacher of writing, I can attest that over those 18 years, I read and responded to about 4000 original multiple-draft essays as well as about 6000 journal-type single-draft writing assignments each academic year.

While teaching and coaching, my day went something like this:

I’d arrive at school between 7 and 7:30 a.m., rushing into the athletic offices to put my teams’ uniforms in the washing machine. After my first period class (class change time was five minutes), I would run down the hall, back to the athletic offices to move those uniforms into the dryer. Between second and third periods, I’d run back to the athletic offices to take the uniforms out of the dryer. My planning period was spent folding and sorting the uniforms, placing them in the players’ cubbies for the next match.

On more than one occasion, I was reprimanded by administration because I wasn’t stationed at my door, shirking my hall duties.

My lunch period was about 20 minutes; I ate in my room, responding to essays essentially every day.

During soccer season, I rushed directly to practice or matches as soon as the school day ended—my work day concluding around 6 p.m. when we practiced and 10 or 11 p.m. on match days.

What’s my point? My point is that this is a typical day for K-12 public school teachers. We almost never pause, and we are being watched by students and administrators virtually non-stop (there is a psychological weight to this that few people other than teachers understand). And along with our responsibilities to know our content and to teach our students, we are also responsible as adults for the safety of other people’s children.

My atypical days, by the way, included coming home with my clothes splattered with the blood of two young men I separated fighting in study hall when I was passing by on my way to the restroom. My atypical days included walking out of my room and bumping into a student gunman (someone I was teaching). My atypical days included receiving a call that the school building in which I was teaching (and where I had attended high school) had burned to the ground.

My point, however, is not that my story is some herculean feat worthy of praise. Again, my story is replicated and exceeded daily by thousands and thousands of K-12 public school teachers—many doing so three and four decades, not just my two.

Over about 150 years, the more-or-less modern public school teacher has worked in ways I describe above, and mostly, they have done so without having much voice in how their profession is administered and what policies mandate their practices.

Since public schools are government agencies, policies are mostly designed by elected officials (and in unionized states, influenced by unions, but that influence has dwindled while many teachers work in right-to-work states, where we have almost no power or voice), with virtually none having classroom teaching experience. Historically, even school-based administrators rise to their positions with minimal time teaching day-to-day; administrators (mostly men) teach and coach 3 or so years, and then become assistant principals, and then principals, district office officials, and superintendents.

Teaching as a mostly voiceless and powerless profession must not be separated from the reality that teaching has disproportionately been the work of women. Where educators have had the most power (and highest salaries), you find, again disproportionately, men.

So, now, let me raise my larger point: I continue to see a number of people weighing in on the education reform debate bristle at classroom teachers calling for their voices being heard and at the recognition that education debates and policies are being driven by people with no or very little K-12 classroom experience (such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee).

Although not a simple argument, it is an essential argument: Classroom teaching experience and teachers’ voice should matter, by driving the education reform debate as well as informing education policy. Let me explain how that should look.

Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

Let me state clearly here that I am not saying—and I believe no one else is either—people without classroom experience should have no voice in the education reform debate. My primary argument about professional autonomy and education policy is that the initial and primary voices that matter should be classroom teachers and people with significant classroom teaching experience (this is also a problem in teacher education where education professors can and do hold positions with little or no classroom experience).

Historically and currently for the field of education, the public voice and policy paradigms are greatly flipped since those without classroom experience hold most of the public voices and almost all of the power to create and impose policy on schools.

As an illustration, consider the influence of education historian Diane Ravitch, whom I have characterized as Ravitch 1.0, Ravitch 2.0, and Ravitch 3.0. Ravitch serves my point here because many who reject criticisms of educational reformers without classroom experience point out that few people raise any concern about Ravitch, who openly admits that she has no K-12 classroom experience (in fact, when Ravitch spoke at my university, this is the first point she raised at her pre-speech talk to our education students).

Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards and high-stakes testing, and during those high-profile years, she wasn’t often championed by classroom teachers (she may have in fact been considered one of the enemies); I argue she wasn’t even known by many classroom teachers.

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0, however, has become if not the at least one of the most high-profile education faces and voices embraced by classroom teachers—a phenomenon that is at least ironic, if not puzzling. So what gives?

The evolution of Ravitch has included not only changes in her positions related to education but also a willingness to listen to as well as honor the experiences and voices of classroom teachers.

This means that if you decide to hold forth on education and have no classroom experience, you should not be surprised if you are held accountable when your claims do not ring true among those who teach every day under the policies that you endorse or have implemented.

Ravitch 1.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supported policy that did not ring true to those of us in the classroom (notably the first two decades of high-stakes accountability throughout the 1980s and 1990s).

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supports, echoes, and endorses policy that rings true to those teaching in K-12 classrooms day-in and day-out.

If you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you are unlikely to understand what it is like to spend your entire weekend writing lesson plans for the next week, meticulously correlating every thing you and your students will do, minute-by-minute, to the required standards and then having your principal or assistant principal drop in and ask for those plans, only to reprimand you for not being where you said you’d be. Or calling you in to tell you your students’ test scores on high-stakes tests correlated with those standards are not adequate.

As a result, if you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you may offer a cavalier claim that Common Core is no big deal; you may trivialize the passion and even hyperbole coming from the mouths of teachers who live the reality of high-stakes accountability aligned with CC.

And it is there that your credibility correlated to not having classroom experience comes into question. When we call you on this, we are not attacking you, we are not failing the debate with our tone, we are not over-reacting. And when you follow up with any of those charges, you are stepping into an ugly tradition that includes, as I noted above, the silencing and marginalizing of teachers, what tends to be associated with women’s professions, and women—as explained on this Feminist Legal Theory blog post:

Similar to “bitch,” the word “crazy” demeans women. But, instead of negatively characterizing women, “crazy” marginalizes and dismisses them. When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as “crazy,” “oversensitive,” and “hysterical”—contrast to men as “sane” and “rational.” These words reduce a woman’s response to irrational behavior. Consequently, she believes that her feelings are not normal and are thus ultimately worthless. This behavior is similar to what is known as gaslighting: “psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.”

Classroom teachers are almost entirely powerless, disproportionately accountable for mandates they did not create and outcomes over which they have little or no control, and working every day in high-pressure, frantic (and tenuous) working environments. When you discount their emotional responses, their efforts to express the inexpressible through metaphor, their insistence that someone listen to them, you have failed the debate, and you have exposed the flaw of people without classroom experience driving the education debate.

There is a paternalism and oppression of the rational in the education debate that must not, as well, be discounted, ignored, as teachers and their experiences and expertise routinely are.

And the CC debate is just one example. I could spend many more paragraphs detailing this same disconnect about value-added methods for teacher evaluation, high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, and the primary elements of education reform now being proposed and implemented.

Classroom teachers aren’t perfect, or universally “right.” I’ve struggled with classroom teachers over grade retention, corporal punishment, isolated grammar instruction, and such. I once taught a graduate class that included a colleague from my own English department who flippantly said in class, “O, you can make research say anything you want.”

So don’t accuse me of offering some romantic tribute to the infallible classroom teacher. I’m not.

What I am saying is that education is a field rich in experience and expertise and bankrupt by the unwillingness not to tap into that goldmine.

If you wish to be a part of the discussion and you have no experience in the field, your solidarity needs to start with you listening, really listening, before making claims yourself—your solidarity needs to include the same level of passion we teachers feel, to recognize that those feelings matter as much as the rationality you believe you are offering.

Teachers of Conscience and the Common Core Scylla and Charybdis

In our popular discourse, we are prone to say we are caught between a rock and a hard place, a veiled allusion to Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis.

For K-12 public school teachers over the past thirty years, our Scylla and Charybdis have been federal, state, district, and school mandates on one side and our own professional expertise and autonomy on the other as we navigate the rough waters of serving our students.

When Diane Ravitch spoke at my home university, she offered a talk to a small group in the afternoon and then attended an informal gathering before her main speech. Since she and I had become virtual friends through email and Twitter, this was the first time we met in person. I took that opportunity to introduce Diane to a former graduate student of mine who at the time was struggling in a “no excuses” environment at the high-poverty, majority-minority public school where she taught.

I explained this as I introduced the early-career teacher to Diane, who immediately looked up from signing her book to say, “Don’t lose your job. We need you in the classroom.”

Those of us at the university level—especially emeriti and tenured professors—have positions that are unlike those of K-12 teachers, especially K-12 teachers in Southern states that are right-to-work (non-tenure).

Having taught in public school in SC for 18 years before entering higher education for the last 13 years, I know those worlds well.

And so I immediately thought of Diane’s comment when Katie posted on my blog post, Supporting Common Core Is Supporting Entire Reform Machine:

What suggestions do you have for productive resistance for those of us who have no choice but to work with it?

I also was forced to confront a hard lesson I learned when I was a co-instructor in the Spartanburg Writing Project. A new teacher, Dawn Mitchell, was in our summer institute, and once we confronted her with the tension between her first-year practices and best practice in literacy, she became the personification for me of the potential paralysis classroom practitioners face because of the Scylla and Charybdis of mandates and best practice—as well as the weight of teaching and blogging that is passionate and demanding themselves.

Dawn taught me that my role is to help teachers navigate the Scylla and Charybdis—not to reinforce the hard place of best practice. I now (thank you, Dawn) try to emphasize that teachers need to seek ways to incorporate one new best practice on Monday, but not to feel obligated to reinvent their classrooms wholesale tomorrow, and above all else, not to sacrifice themselves on the alter of nonconformity.

Now Katie has joined a long list of others who have taught me. As an apology (I should not be blogging in ways that contribute to the anxiety and pressure that K-12 teachers already feel) and an act of good faith to do better, let me answer her question:

  • First, let’s all start with do not harm to children and students. If we start here, we can evaluate better how to navigate our practices under the stress of mandates and best practice.
  • Be professional. K-12 teachers must be diligent about their professionalism when interacting with administration, colleagues, parents, and students. Part of that professionalism is knowing our fields. Let’s start with a powerful knowledge base of best practice, and then be prepared to show how mandates do and do not reflect that best practice. Too often, we start with the mandates; let’s flip that paradigm.
  • Find or create a community of professionals, preferably within our schools but including wider communities such as forming a Facebook group, joining state and national professional organizations, committing or recommitting to graduate degrees or graduate courses. One of the most corrosive aspects of teaching is isolation. Isolation erodes your professionalism and feeds your anxiety as well as your distrust in yourself.
  • Once you’ve found or created that community, take the time to do a careful and honest appraisal of what mandates are genuinely beyond your control to change and what mandates are open for how they are fulfilled. Start your efforts for reform with the latter. Few things are as harmful to our field of teaching than a misguided fatalism about what things we perceive as requirements of our teaching.
  • Seek ways to communicate with your administration that are professional and evidence-based. Share articles that highlight the need for best practice and the problems with mandates. Discussions with administration are best when they are between you and the administrator(s)—in other words, not public and not unannounced—allowing those with authority to consider your points without feeling as if that authority is being challenged. Begin to build a collegial atmosphere in your school, among teachers and among teachers and administrators.
  • Be political in ways that will not jeopardize your job. Share research and best practice with parents and state-level representatives, especially those directly involved in education committees. Share that research with school board members. Teachers are our best hope for teaching everyone, not just the students in our classes.
  • Create a public voice for yourself by blogging, Tweeting, and/or writing Op-Eds for local, state, and regional publications. With this, I urge caution. All K-12 teachers run some degree of risk by becoming a public voice, but I remain convinced that we must speak publicly. The challenge for each teachers is learning what works, what is safe, and then what you can do to increase the safe space for teachers’ public voices. Teachers need also to consider how to join the scholarly community by conducting classroom-based research and submitting work to scholarly journals—often a less dangerous avenue to creating a public voice.
  • Offer alternatives to the practices you feel are misguided. Since mandates are the given in the field of teaching, we are not served well by simply discounting what is being done (even when we are right). What should we do instead and how will that be better? Can you share with colleagues and administration models of the alternatives you have implemented in your classroom, highlighting how those practices serve both best practice and mandates?

In short, Katie’s question leads to ways in which all teachers can establish themselves as knowledgable, proactive, and professional.

Few things will deteriorate a teacher’s passion more than the fatalism of conforming to mandates she/he feels are misguided. As with students, teachers need and deserve autonomy, voice, and action.

As a final real-world point: Some Common Core advocates have responded to me by stating that the math CC standards are better than what the state had before. My argument is that instead of advocating for CC, all teachers should be advocating for teacher autonomy and thus the professional embracing of best practice identified by our perspective fields—not mandated in public policy by non-teachers, and not linked to highs-stakes testing.

Education certainly needs reform, but that reform must come from the professionals and for the good of our students.

We don’t need standards to teach, we need students. And we don’t need test scores to know how we have done, we need the faces and voices of each child we teach.

Katie, be true to your students, be true to yourself, and walk forward with patience and confidence. As Henry David Thoreau reminds us: “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.”

Choose your something with care, and don’t let it be a burden, but a call.

Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition

At This Week in Poverty, Greg Kaufmann offers Anti-Poverty Leaders Discuss the Need for a Shared Agenda. Taking a similar pose, Diane Ravitch offers her reasoned “dissent” to my post, Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage, explaining at the end:

My advice to Paul Thomas, whose sense of outrage I share, is to embrace coalition politics. When the white moms and dads realize they are in the same situation as the black and Hispanic moms and dads, they become a force to be reckoned with. The coalition of diverse groups is a source of political power that will benefit children and families of all colors and conditions.

Both pieces raise an important element in the education reform debates, especially as that overlaps with efforts to address and eradicate poverty and inequity: Failure in education and equity reform has be driven by commitments to competition models instead of embracing collaboration and coalitions. To that, I offer the following:

Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition

Since the mid- to late-1800s, and especially over the past thirty years, public education has experienced a constant state of reform that can be characterized by one disturbing conclusion—none of that reform appears to work (or, at least, political leaders and the media stay committed, often in conjunction, to that claim).

Despite massive political, public, and financial commitments to creating better schools in the U.S., most people remain concerned that education is not achieving its promise. While debates often focus on issues related to state-to-state or international comparisons of test scores, we have also struggled with issues of equity, such as high drop-out rates and achievement gaps (see HERE and HERE).

Ultimately, the failure of decades of education reform is likely that we have committed to in-school-only reform. “No excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” represent educational policy such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and calls for tougher standards (Common Core) and next-generation tests. Education consultant Grant Wiggins defends this in-school-only focus: “Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control.”

Since three decades of standards-based and test-driven accountability have resulted in the current call for different standards and tests, we are poised at a moment when in-school-only reform and competition models such as school choice and Race to the Top must be examined as part of the problem. Instead, education reform must be an act of collaboration that addresses directly both social and educational reform. That collaboration model should begin by acknowledging that we are failing both the historical promise of public education and the call in No Child Left Behind to create scientifically-based education reform. For example, consider just two powerful research-based reasons to change course.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the importance of social reform as a powerful mechanism for educational reform: “The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.”

And Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much show that—despite the in-school reform argument for students needing “grit”—people in abundance succeed because of slack, not grit, and those same people would struggle in scarcity.

Education reform, then, needs to shift away from in-school-only commitments and competition, thus seeking ways in which the lives and schools of children can create the slack all children deserve so that their grit can matter.

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

A comment posted on my blog about union support for Common Core (CC)—which parallels my blog post about Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration’s support for CC—represents a typical response coming from standards advocates in the CC debate: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters.”

Alfie Kohn in January 2010 argued against national standards in Education Week; I then offered a direct rejection of CC in the same publication in August of 2010. A few others took early stances against CC, such as Susan Ohanian (whose work is impressive and certainly well before most people raised any concerns) and Stephen Krashen.

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris have taken stances opposing CC more recently, and they represent thoughtful and patient considerations of the exact issue raised by the comment quoted above. At first, Ravitch and Burris appeared willing to consider that CC could prove to be an effective reform mechanism. But both of their explanations for deciding to oppose CC are windows into my initial and continuing stance against the expensive and unnecessary venture into what for most states will be the third or fourth set of standards and high-stakes tests in about thirty years.

I have been a teacher for those thirty years, in fact—the first 18 years spent as a public school teacher in the rural South and the last 13 years as a teacher educator in the same region.

My work as a classroom teacher in the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by quarterly multiple-choice benchmark tests of reading and quarterly writing samples from my students that asked them to write one of four types of writing: description, narration, persuasion, or exposition (types that do not exist as stand-alone forms in the real world, by the way, but exist only in a world where standards and testing rule).

During those years also, state standards changed three times, and concurrent with those changes, we adopted new textbooks and sat through hours and hours of in-service, handed over more and more class time to test-prep, and implemented SAT courses during the school day (ones for which students received credit toward graduation) that required huge investments in hardware and software, which mostly never worked (my home state of SC has a history of so-called low SAT scores so our 1990s approach to addressing that was to encourage more students to take the SAT).

Eventually, the entire state of SC became invested in MAP testing while students at the high school where I taught were assigned two ELA and two math courses as sophomores if they had 8th-grade test data suggesting they would struggle with the state high-stakes tests. Our administration assigned as many as half our sophomores in double ELA and math courses, in fact.

One legacy of this test-mania was that many sophomores in our school wrote only 3-5-3 essays (3-sentence introduction, 5-sentence body paragraph, 3-sentence conclusion) because that was how they were trained to answer on the state writing test—a strategy that did increase how many passed but also ignored good writing pedagogy and mis-educated those students severely.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my high school became a master of doing the wrong thing the right way as we were regularly the top-scoring school in the state on the state’s high-stakes tests.

Once at higher education, I watched my teacher candidates and teachers in the surrounding public schools suffer under yet more revisions to the standards and two different versions of high-stakes tests (since the mid-1980s, SC has implemented BSAP and then PACT and then PASS); now the entire state is implementing CC and poised for the CC-based and once again new set of high-stakes test.

All of this is to say: If you have ever taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that the comment quoted at the beginning is patently false. In fact, if you have taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that CC cannot be separated from highs-stakes testing.

In 2013, with almost all states in the U.S. committed to CC, with the U.S. Department of Education supporting CC, with teachers’ unions supporting CC, with textbook and testing companies supporting CC, and with professional teacher organizations supporting CC, there is a deafening silence about a few facts that must be confronted if anyone or any organization wishes to make this claim: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters”:

  • Name a state in the U.S. that implemented state standards since 1980 without also implementing high-stakes tests.
  • Name a state in the U.S. that has adopted CC and has not adopted some form of high-stakes testing related to CC.
  • Name a state that does not have high-stakes accountability mechanisms in place—as a legacy of state legislation and/or as a result of complying with federal mandates within policy such as Race to the Top or opting out of NCLB.
  • Name a school (especially a high-poverty school) where “what is tested is what is taught” does not drive most of what occurs in that school.
  • Name a state that is not spending tax payer money (totaling in the 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars nationally) on CC resources and technology, CC-aligned text books, CC testing, and CC teacher in-service.
  • Name a strong CC advocate who isn’t making money and/or gaining political advantage by endorsing CC.

My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. A foundational part of my doctoral study and dissertation research, then, explored the century-old debate about what content matters, what should be taught in public schools. Any standards movement is a direct descendent of the larger curriculum debate.

While John Dewey and even Joseph Schwab provide engaging and powerful places upon which Eliot Eisner and others have the luxury of thinking deeply about esoteric things (issues that I too find fascinating), in the real world of day-to-day K-12 teaching, it is pure delusion and myopic idealism to make claims that CC and high-stakes testing debates are “two different matters.”

Around 2000 when my daughter was 11 and attending a public middle school, she came out to the car one day leaning against the weight of her giant backpack, slid into my car, and then said: “All they care about is the PACT test [SC’s high-stakes test at the time]; they don’t care if we learn anything.” [1] She never once as a student mentioned the standards. And in many ways as a child of the accountability era, I think she learned to hate school. She loved her friends and loved many of her teachers, but she hated what school had become throughout the 1990s—which pales to what school has become in the twenty-first century.

Thus, address the bullet points above if you don’t believe me, or better yet, ask a classroom teacher—not a union leader, not a politician, not a representative of Pearson, not a consultant.

[1] See “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think,” English Journal (2001, September).