Tone, pt. 1: Does Tone Matter in the Education Reform Debate?

[NOTE: The topic of the appropriate tone for making and debating points in education reform will not die; thus, I am reposting two pieces on tone, both originally posted at Daily Kos in 2012 (See pt. 1 HERE, and pt. 2 HERE); pt. 3 is original and intended as a prelude to the release of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, which is drawing some criticism for her tone (see my review HERE). Let me be clear that it is absolutely true that tone matters, but I also have learned that the charge of inappropriate tone tends to come from those in power to put the powerless in their “place” and from those who have no substantive point to make. In the end, I call for addressing the credibility and validity of the claims being made first and then, if relevant, we can discuss tone.]

Does Tone Matter in the Education Reform Debate?*

While shoddy arguments remain the target of freshman composition professors in colleges and universities across the U.S., ad hominem attacks, cherry-picking data, straw man arguments, either/or claims, and sweeping generalizations have become the norm in the education reform debate maintaining momentum in both the mainstream and new media.

For example, Ken Libby prompted a Twitter debate concerning the tone of arguments coming from educators, scholars, and researchers, suggesting that the tone of their arguments were keeping them from being heard.

At the Shanker BlogMatthew Di Carlo has also confronted this trend, calling for an end to “self-righteousness”:

That’s because this kind of rhetoric has to some degree become the rule, not the exception. For every allegation from “defenders of the status quo” that philanthropists are really profiteers or that market-based reforms are a form of “teacher-bashing,” there is an ad hominem accusation from the other “side” – charging that support for traditionally union-advocated policies means you’re putting compensation and job security “above the needs of children,” or that opposition to test-based accountability means you don’t care whether schools improve.

And although Diane Ravitch is increasingly the target of questionable attacks, Alexander Russo claims she is also wrong:

Let’s start with the mis-steps:  Ravitch leads off with the notion that teachers have been “demonized” (ironic given her constant demonization of reformers), describes Gates et al as privatizers (a claim that’s factually hard to support though it sounds good), and claims that the billionaires’ influence is unprecedented (which Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Soros, and the Koch brothers might be surprised to hear).

But the most puzzling calling out for mean-spiritedness comes from Rick Hess, in the oddly titled blog posting, “Self-Pitying Tantrums Are Poor Way for Educators to Win Friends, Influence People,” in which he complains:

Self-proclaimed advocates of educators and public education have become so vitriolic, mean-spirited, arrogant, and unreasoning that it’s becoming inane to anyone who’s not a fellow true believer. This means that they’re poorly positioned to convince Americans, and painfully uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t agree with them already.

If this were satire, Hess should be commended, but his name-calling and easily labeled mean-spirited argument against mean-spiritedness suggests, at least, that a caustic tone is in the eye of the beholder.

While I remain concerned that this recurring debate about the debate is a distraction, I do believe that addressing whether or not tone matters in the education reform debate can contribute positively to what has so far been a fruitless tug-of-war.

Of Tone, Argumentation, and “Knowing One’s Place”

“Minority group identification carries with it certain behavioral patterns that often impede the process of integration in the total community,” explains Jean D. Crambs, adding, “It is because minority status produces the kind of behavior that makes social adjustment so difficult that much effort in recent years has been directed toward reducing the crucial aspects of group differences.”

Further, however, Crambs makes a provocative and relevant charge:

In the same way, workers in the field of education have been seeking ways and means for making teachers more effective in the larger community, as well as assuring the teacher as an individual of a satisfying and mature personal development. Juxtaposition of the fact that teachers on the whole are not as effective persons as the profession needs, and the description given above of the effects of minority group status, produces an interesting relationship; the hypothesis may be advanced that one cause for the lack of professional achievement by teachers as a group may be due to the fact that teachers’ behavior in some respects is restricted in the same way as is that of “recognized” minority groups.

What makes this discussion of the harmful effects of teachers as a minority group even more compelling is that Crambs wrote this in 1949; yet, it speaks powerfully to the current education reform debate and the challenges about tone raised above.

The classification of teachers as a minority group is an acknowledgement about a disproportion of power. While racial minority groups satisfy both the status of being fewer in number and having less power, not all groups having minority status are the smaller group—for instance, women.

While women constitute a larger population than men, women remain a minority because minority status is primarily about the unfair imbalance of power.

And all this leads to what makes me uncomfortable about the tone arguments. They remind me of my father’s dictum: “Children are to be seen not heard.” They remind me of that same dictum being applied to women for much of U.S. history. They remind me of that same dictum being applied to African Americans for much of U.S. history.

At the risk of crossing lines established by Libby, Di Carlo, Russo, and Hess, I am deeply skeptical of the intentions of people who hold genuine power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire Bill Gates, for example) against the intentions of people who hold either no or substantially less power (teachers, scholars, and researchers).

And as a result, I am deeply concerned about teachers, scholars, and researchers being told to watch their tone—not that I don’t agree that tone matters, that basic logic in argumentation matters. I do believe ad hominem attacks, either/or claims, and strawman arguments are poisonous to the education reform debate.

But I also wonder how these charges have somehow become associated with the groups with the least power. I know that cautioning those with little or no power to watch their tone against those with power is disregarding the balance of power.

Tone doesn’t really matter for those with power, and anyone arguing for the dominant ideology crying “mean-spirited” is unlikely to spur any compassion from me.

As a teacher, coach, and father, I learned that when young people lost their composure and leveled hateful and even profane language at me, that was primarily a representation of their frustration about being powerless, and it was often a rightful acknowledgement by them that the imbalance of power was not fair.

Now, U.S. public discourse is dominated by several well-known and influential names: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Malkin, for example. What do these people have in common? They promote a nearly uniform right-wing narrative and primarily do so through the exact strategies being criticized as inappropriate for responses to the current reform agenda. [Note that the only comparable “mean-spirited” people endorsing a liberal agenda are all comedians: Bill Maher, most notably.]

If there is a mean-spirited nature to public discourse, the right must be acknowledged as at least a significant, if not foundational, source for that tone. The norm of American discourse is conservative, and all norms are markers of where the power lies.

Further, in the education reform debate, we must acknowledge when and why educators began to speak up. If the tone of responses from educators is mean-spirited, let’s note that most teachers did not raise their voices until they were in fact unfairly attacked and demonized, first by Waiting for “Superman” and then repeatedly by Gates, Duncan, and Michelle Rhee.

I offer this discusion not as excuses and not to condone the tone on either side, but to note that teachers’ have fought back in ways that should be expected from the powerless (minority status) backed into a corner.

Ultimately, the “watch your tone” argument leveled at teachers and advocates for public education and democracy remains too much like telling a profession overwhelmingly composed of women to know their place. And it reminds me that minorities, that the powerless have only one real weapon on their side—the moral high ground. And I mean the moral high ground of their claims.

So I ask everyone concerned about the tone coming from teachers, scholars, and researchers to listen to a couple examples of how the powerless speak moral authority to privilege.

Consider James Baldwin speaking from his minority status in an excerpt from Take this Hammer (1963), “Who is the Nigger?”: “What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you.”

And consider Martin Luther King Jr. also speaking from a minority status:

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this,• You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?”

• You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?”

• You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?”

I am willing to consider and address the tone of arguments coming from educators who are experiencing the corrosive effects of minority status, powerlessness, but I am withholding that concern until we address first why the powerful are rarely held accountable for their lack of experience, their lack of expertise, and the enveloping social and educational inequity that is swallowing the children of the U.S. on their watch.

And, yes, I am also willing to risk self-righteousness in the process.

* Originally posted June 9, 2012.


The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

In his Washington Post Op-Ed (28 February 2011), Bill Gates builds to this solution to education reform*:

“What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

Gates also includes his own foundation’s survey to give his claims the appearance of evidence-based reform (although he misrepresents even that), but this claim, as well as the continuing free pass Gates and other education hobbyists and celebrities receive from the media and the public (see the softballs tossed to Gates in an interview at Newsweek, for example), proves to reveal several ironic lessons in education reform:

Wealth and celebrity do not equal expertise. The United States is a celebrity culture, and we revere wealth because we aspire to wealth. Why do we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Because Oprah endorsed them—not because they offered the public credible expertise in their fields. The current education reform debate is being driven by wealth, celebrity, and life-long bureaucrats—not by the expertise and experience of millions of teachers, scholars, and researchers who have credible evidence about the problems that face our public education system and the likely solutions that would move us closer to the promise of that system in our democracy.

Calls for accountability tend to come from those outside and above that accountability. As I will discuss later, the role of evidence is interesting and disturbing in the claims made by the new reformers, including Gates. A central part of the push to hold teachers accountable is tying teacher pay to evidence, but when these claims are made, Gates and others are never required to show any evidence themselves about their claims. As well, billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and politicians all exist in lives in which they are less often held accountable for their actions when compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Teaching and learning are not the simple transmission of a set body of knowledge from an authoritarian teacher and to a passive classroom of students. The smoldering charges that our schools are overburdened by “bad” teachers, and thus we need to improve our teaching core, has distracted us from considering first exactly what the teaching/learning process should look like in universal public education system built to support a free people and a democracy.

The new reformers have framed teaching as both the most important element in educational outcomes (although evidence refutes that simplistic claim) and a simple act of transmitting knowledge to a large group of students to raise test scores linked to national standards.

If we need the best and the brightest and if teachers alone can overcome the weight of poverty, then reducing teaching to a service industry contradicts internally an argument that is also easily disproved since both initial claims are false. Teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and nearly impossible to measure or trace to single points of causation.

The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want. We move forward with wars when we decide we should, we bail out failing banks when we feel we should, we make a whole host of celebrities wealthy when we want (and we never hold them accountable for their egregious lack of respect for anything), and we could eradicate childhood poverty and support fully a vibrant and world-class education system–if we wanted to. But we don’t.

Evidence doesn’t matter, but it should. As the first point above suggests, the public seems content with celebrity and wealth, but skeptical of evidence. I have had dozens of experiences offering public commentary on education, citing extensively why I hold the positions I do, but one of the most common replies I receive is, “Anybody can make research say whatever they want.” While I empathize with the sentiment, this belief is flawed because it oversimplifies the research debate in the same way that the new reformers oversimplify the education reform debate. The truth about research is that one study is interesting, but that one study proves little.

Once research has been peer-reviewed, while no guarantee, that study gains credibility. Then, as research builds to a body of peer-reviewed research with clear patterns, we reach safe ground for public claims and policy (see this about charter schools, for example). Neither cherry-picking studies to advance an agenda nor being cavalier and cynical about research is conducive to advancing humanity through our greatest gifts as human — our minds.

Poverty is the unspoken and ignored weight on education outcomes, and while U.S. public education needs significant reforms, education reform will never succeed without the support of social reforms addressing childhood poverty and income equity.

This final ironic lesson from a billionaire holding forth repeatedly on education reveals its problem by the obvious complexity of the statement itself. The sentence is too much for our sound-bite culture that politicians feel compelled to appease. While we revel in making international comparisons to demonize our schools (falsely), we fail to acknowledge international evidence of how to address school reform.

Let me suggest two international approaches we should be considering, both from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK)—a compilation of evidence on the impact of poverty on educational success and adetailed consideration of wide-scale social and education reform.

In 2013, again, U.S. political leaders and the public appear disgusted with a public education system, but this sentiment has been with us since the Committee of Ten declared education inadequate in the 1890s. We must, then, come to terms with two facts: (1) We must drop Utopian claims about education because education is not the sole key to overcoming social failures, but a single element in the larger working of our society, (2) claims of crisis in education are misleading since the problems we are considering (student outcomes and drop-out rates, for example) are patterns that have existed for over a century.

Many are arguing that the new reformers must be valued since they are creating a debate about education and rattling the cage of an entrenched status quo that is failing. I find this argument weak since we have no evidence that inexpert celebrity claims are resulting in a close consideration of what is truly wrong with our schools and what should be pursued to create the world-class schools we claim we want.

In fact, this current round of school bashing and calls for accountability and reform are an intensifying of the exact same failed solutions we have tried for three decades–all the while ignoring the genuine problems and the weight of evidence for what reforms would work

And this leads to a question I have: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.

* Reposting of original piece from The Answer Sheet (March 2, 2011). See why Gates remains a lingering problem at Jersey Jazzman.

Truthout: The Education Games: Reform as Doublespeak

Although we currently live in a world informed by George Orwell’s dystopian unmasking-as-novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we seem unable to acknowledge that the Ministry of Peace is actually waging war.* In our current education reform debate, educators must come to terms with Orwell’s recognition of the essential nature of political speech:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind [emphasis added]. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.

Currently, The U.S. Department of Education is the Ministry of Peace, and from the USDOE, we are facing doublespeak that thinly masks the de-professionalizing of teachers and the dismantling of public education—all in the name of reform under the banner of “hope and change.”

“One Need Not Swallow Such Absurdities as This”

One consequence of calling for educators to be apolitical is that the education reform debate remains in the hands of the inexpert and that reform is allowed to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. Here, however, I want to call for educators to expose and reject the doublespeak driving the education agenda under President Obama and personified by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by addressing four key areas of that debate: (1) high-stakes standardized testing, (2) Common Core State Standards (CCSS), (3) expertise in education, and (4) claims based on ends-justify-means logic.

High-stakes standardized tests. The doublespeak around high-stakes standardized testing is one of the most powerful weapons used today by Duncan. The Obama administration has produced mountains of evidence that claiming to reject and decrease testing is a cloak for the inevitability of more testing and more corrosive accountability for teachers. But that debate is masking a deeper problem with confronting high-stakes standardized tests: Many educators are quick to reject the high-stakes element while adding that standardized testing is being misused. And here is where educators are failing the debate.

The high-stakes problem is the secondary problem with standardized testing. Yes, high-stakes create inexcusable outcomes related to testing: teaching to the test, reducing all course content to what-is-tested-is-what-is-taught, reducing teacher quality to test scores, reducing student learning to test scores, and cheating. But rejecting or even calling for removing the high-stakes ignores that standardized tests are flawed themselves. Standardized tests remain primarily linked to the race, social class, and gender of students; standardized tests label and sort children overwhelmingly based on the coincidence of those children’s homes.

The standardized testing debate is the cigarette debate, not the alcohol debate. Alcohol can be consumed safely and even with health benefits; thus, the alcohol debate is about the use of alcohol, not alcohol itself. Cigarettes are another story; there is no healthy consumption of cigarettes so that debate is about the inherent danger of tobacco.

Educators must expose the double-speak calling for less testing while increasing the testing and the stakes for students and teachers, but we must not allow that charge to trump the need to identify standardized testing as cancerous, to state clearly there is no safe level of standardized testing.

Common Core State Standards. Few moments of double-speak can top Duncan’s recent comment about the CCSS: “The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support.”

Among a few othersSusan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen have spoken against the CCSS movement. But as with the high-stakes standardized tests debate, many educators have rushed to seek how best to implement CCSS without considering the first-level question: Why do we need national standards when the evidence shows that multiple standards movements have failed repeatedly in the past?

The current dytopian-novel-de-jure is The Hunger Games. Like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this young adult science fiction (SF) novel offers insight into defiance against compliance to power. Before they are plunged into the Hunger Games (a horrifying reality TV show), the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, confront their ethical dilemma:

“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.

“But you’re not,” I [Katniss] say[s]. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.” (p. 142)

One of the most relevant messages of Collins’s novel is that Katniss comes to understand Peeta’s critical nature, embracing that her agency is about rising above the Hunger Games, not simply winning the Games as they are dictated for her. For educators and professional organizations to justify supporting CCSS by demanding a place at the table, they are relinquishing the essential question about whether or not that table should exist.

And this is where educators sit with the CCSS: To implement the CCSS is for the Capitol to own us, to reject CCSS for our own professional autonomy is to be more than just a piece in their Games.

Expertise in educationThe Los Angeles Times has now been followed by The New York Times as pawns in the USDOE’s games designed to label, rank, and dehumanize teachers the way our education system has treated children for decades. Again, the pattern is disturbing since publishing VAM-related data on teachers creates a debate about the publishing of the data and ignores first-level issues. But in this case, another problem concerns who has the expertise to frame these debates.

As the backlash mounted against the NYT’s publishing teacher rankings, Bill Gates inexplicably rejected publishing VAM-data, and quickly all over Twitter and in blogs, educators began citing Gates’s criticism. And here is the problem.

Gates is inexpert about education; he has no credibility whether his claims are flawed (most of the time) or accurate (although only on the surface since we must ask why he makes these claims). Thus, if educators wish to claim our rightful place as the experts on education, we must not embrace the inexpert, ever. (And this overlaps with the testing dilemma; we must also stop referring to test data when it serves our purposes just as we reject test data when they are harmful.)

Doublespeak (think Doublethink and Newspeak from Orwell’s 1984) as a weapon of the political and cultural elite depends on masking the value of expertise. To expose that to sunshine requires that the expert remain steadfast in honoring who determines our discourse and where we acknowledge credibility and judiciousness.

The ends-justify-the-means logic. The ugliest and seemingly most enduring double-speak surrounds the rise of support for Teach for America (TFA) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters schools—both of which promote themselves as addressing social justice and the plight of poverty. These claims often go unchallenged because both TFA and KIPP keep the debate on the metrics (the ends) and not the “no excuses” ideology (the means).

As long as TFA and KIPP keep the argument about whether or not their approaches raise test scores or graduation rates, we fail to examine the essential flaws in each: TFA creating leaders at the expense of children and schools trapped in poverty, and KIPP (and many charters) implementing “no excuses” practices that are re-segregating schools and perpetuating classist and racist stereotypes.

And this may capture the overarching issue with all of the four points I have addressed here: The ends do not justify the means.

As Orwell has warned, however, politicians craft their words regardless of political party to mask the means with the ends—”to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

It is now ours as educators to expose the double-speak of the education reform movement while also taking great care not to fall prey to the allure of that strategy ourselves.

About two-thirds into the narrative of The Hunger Games, Katniss is forced to confront the earlier discussion between her and Peeta because she has come to love one of her competitors, Rue:

It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us….Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof….And for the first time, I understand what he means.

I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I. (pp. 235-236)

Universal public education and the autonomy and professionalism of teachers in America are worth this same sentiment, and it is past time for our voices to be heard and our actions to matter.

Read at Truthout