Often, my high school students would draft a sentence that began “I don’t think,” and I would highlight or circle the construction and then comment: “If you don’t think, why should I listen?”
This was a typical ploy of my feedback on student writing—one designed to develop in my students a purposefulness and care for not only the words they chose, but also the assembling of those words.
For “I don’t think the movie was good,” we would discuss the placement of “not,” recasting as “I think the movie was not good” or simply “bad,” and then “I think the movie was cliche and condescending to the viewers.”
But I was relentless (and still am) about what word choices and sentence formations actually stated (“I could care less”) versus what was meant (“I couldn’t care less”): “I want to kiss you badly” isn’t a very good invitation to romance, I’d explain.
We argued about “not” and “only” placements, but also I emphasized the lazy openings of sentences: “Flying low over the fields, the cows were startled by the plane.” So we could examine dangling and misplaced modifiers as well as the inherent dangers of passive voice; eventually, hitting on the real danger of passive voice—the absent agent: “Documents were shredded.”
Mostly, for my students, class time was about playing with language as readers and writers. It endeared my students to Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut—Atwood’s wordplay and Vonnegut’s sparse snark.
Words are how humans define the world, and how we are equipped to re-define the world.
And that is why I am so persistent about the importance of careful, purposeful language—especially for young people.
“I Don’t Think” v. “I Don’t Believe”
During my first 18 years as a high school English teacher in my rural Upstate South Carolina home town, I was committed to confronting the provincialism that had plagued me—and the realization that education had changed my life by changing my mind (or more accurately, education had realigned my mind with my soul).
My wonderful parents gave me life, but writers—many black writers, notably Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin—saved my life.
Currently, I am easing into my second decade teaching at a selective liberal arts college, also in the rural Upstate of SC, and the provincialism is different, but not absent.
While I had to confront “I don’t think” with my high schoolers, I am more often challenging “I don’t believe” with undergraduates.
In my education foundations course, I engage the students in the lingering controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. The students at my university are high-achieving students who tend to be religiously and politically conservative and from economically and racially privileged backgrounds.
I must note here, that for 30+ years, I have taught overwhelmingly wonderful young people, and I must stress that all young people have histories, misconceptions, and home-based baggage to overcome.
This is what it means to go from childhood to adulthood. But for some of us, that journey and the baggage are uglier than for others.
During the teaching of evolution discussion I witness each semester some patterns:
- Students often make this statement: “I don’t believe in evolution.”
- When I note evolution is a credible theory, students rarely can define accurately the term “theory” (confusing it with “hypothesis,” and even “guessing”).
- And when I ask what evolution means (and thus what they don’t believe), students typically misrepresent evolution (something akin to “I don’t believe humans came from monkeys”).
And then, I must admit, that I am fairly certain that despite the care taken (and the time, including viewing and discussing the documentary Flock of Dodos) to examine terminology (“hypothesis,” “theory,” “law”) and the students’ misconceptions, many if not most of those students claiming “I don’t believe in evolution” hold that same view afterward—as well as their belief that “both sides” of the evolution debate should be taught in biology, despite the problem with that stance being discredited in our discussions.
Yes, “I don’t think” is both a sloppy construction and a real problem behind what many people embrace—because in many instances people cling to “I believe” without having challenged those beliefs, and with little regard for evidence that contradicts those beliefs.
For those of us in academia, claims and evidence are a way of discourse and the foundations of knowing the world.
However, in the so-called real world, unsupported and unsupportable claims have a great deal of power.
And as I am often overwhelmed with my recalcitrant but very academically bright students, I am equally discouraged by the impact of my public work, most of which addresses education, poverty, and racism—phenomena awash in “I believe.”
Is teacher quality the greatest factor in student achievement? Well, no.
Is education the great equalizer? Well, no.
Is the U.S. a post-racial country? Well, no.
This could go on for quite a while— pairing the entrenched commitments to charter schools, merit pay, school choice, etc., against the substantial body of evidence showing those commitments are ill founded.
There is great irony in all this.
Education could be the key to overcoming this problem, but when many people start their comments with “I don’t think” they are unwittingly admitting exactly what is wrong with the claim that follows.
Since I have recently challenged the word magic behind claims that education is the one true path out of poverty and that the free market can ever address poverty and inequity, I want to highlight that the unwillingness of political leaders and the public to acknowledge the importance and potential of the Commons results in a refusal to end directly poverty and confront privilege.
Austin Nichols offers a powerful argument that We can end child poverty. Or, at least, do more:
We could effectively end child poverty now, at least in the short run. The question is whether we’re willing to do that.
If the United States offered cash benefits to children in poor families, we could cut child poverty by more than half. According to calculations using the 2012 Current Population Survey, poor children need $4,800 each, on average, to escape poverty. That’s $400 a month for each child.
If we issued a $400 monthly payment to each child, and cut tax subsidies for children in higher-income families, we would cut child poverty from 22 percent to below 10 percent. If we further guaranteed one worker per family a job paying $15,000 a year, and each family participated, child poverty would drop to under 1 percent.
A child benefit is now common across developed countries, with amounts of about $140 a month in the UK, $190 in Ireland, $130 in Japan, $160 in Sweden, and $250 in Germany. A smaller child benefit of $150 per month would chop child poverty from 22 percent to below 17 percent. Adding the job guarantee would lower child poverty to 8 percent.
As important as the need and ability to end poverty directly is the need to face the power of privilege, as detailed by Richard Fry’s The growing economic clout of the college educated. Note specifically the following data displays:
Fry explains the growing disparity:
For the first time on record, households headed by someone with at least a bachelor’s degree received nearly a majority (49.7%) of aggregate U.S. household income; nearly one out of every two dollars went to the college educated. In 2012 one-in-three households was college educated, so, put another way, half of the aggregate U.S. income goes to one third of the households.
Buried in the strong correlation between level of education attained and household income is the very real causational relationship between privilege and access to that education (both the quality and attainment). While it remains statistically true that higher earning is associated with higher educational attainment, it is also likely that higher educational attainment is simply a marker for the privilege that led to that attainment.
In other words, identifying any person’s educational attainment may be more about that person’s relative privilege or poverty and not that person’s effort, ability, or genuine achievement. (Please note Bruenig’s recognition that birth-wealth without college still has higher income potential than birth-poverty and college attainment.)
The evidence is overwhelming that poverty and affluence are destiny, that inequity is growing in the U.S., and that the best and most effective methods for ending poverty and closing the equity gap is through direct action by our publicly funded institutions (and not waiting on the magic of the Invisible Hand).
Andrea Gabor examines the rise of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, raising an important question in the subhead: “Are New Orleans’s schools a model for the nation—or a cautionary tale?”
Gabor ends the piece suggesting caution:
But even for students who don’t fall through the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive systems surrounding charter schools taken public education in the direction we want it to go? Anthony Recasner, a partner in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans charter experiment and his disappointment in the distance that remains between today’s no-excuses charter-school culture and the movement’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a child psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to become CEO of Agenda for Children, a children’s advocacy organization. The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is one of the few African-American charter leaders in New Orleans; his own experience as a poor child raised by a single parent mirrors that of most students in the charter schools. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”
In my review of Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope for The Wilson Quarterly, I found Carr’s work to suggest, also, that New Orleans was yet more evidence of the failures of charter schools, “no excuses” ideology, and Teach for America. Below is my expanded review:
Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a story of place.
Readers see first a map of eastern New Orleans, the 9th and 7th Wards, Treme, French Quarter, and Algiers—situating the three schools at the center of the story, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Renaissance, SciAcademy, and O. Perry Walker.
As a Southerner, I thought of Yoknapatawpha County maps in William Faulkner’s novels. That connection predicted accurately the narrative Carr shapes about the intersection of place, race, class, education, and America’s pervasive market ideology. New Orleans public schools have a long history of failure connected to the city’s high poverty rates and racial diversity, but post-Katrina New Orleans has experienced a second flood, a school reform surge characterized by charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and education reformers from outside the city and the South:
But in 2007…Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District [RSD], helped bring hundreds of young educators to the region. Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 after a decade spent leading the Chicago and Philadelphia schools….Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency.
An education journalist for over a decade (The Chronicle of Higher Education, New Orleans Times-Picayune), Carr weaves a vivid story of twenty-first century education reform, examining the influx of charter schools in New Orleans as options designed to address high-poverty and minority students. The stories are drawn from principal Mary Laurie, student Geraldlynn Stewart, and TFA recruit and Harvard graduate Aidan Kelly in the wake of Katrina recovery efforts from 2010 through 2012.
The place, New Orleans, is Carr’s touchstone for six parts, each divided among The Family (Geraldlyn’s family), The Teacher (Kelly), and The Principal (Laurie). Geraldlyn expresses ambivalent attitudes about her KIPP education as it contrasts with her mother’s efforts to provide Geraldlyn a better life. Kelly personifies the “missionary zeal” of TFA recruits, but also offers insight into those ideals as they clash with the reality of day-to-day schooling. Dedicated to her city, Laurie was a successful public school educator before Katrina, but after the hurricane, the RSD laid off public school teachers and dissolved the teachers unions; charter schools gave Laurie a new start, but not without complications.
Carr crafts some of the best education reform journalism to date, presenting a critical eye on charter schools (specifically KIPP), TFA, and a market-based model supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Charter schools and TFA represent reform policies that view public school traditions, teacher certification and teachers unions, as root causes of poor academic outcomes. To eradicate those in-school problems, choice and competition are embraced as the primary tools for reform. Carr’s examination, however, calls these claims and solutions into question.
Education journalism often offers slogans such as “miracle schools” and “grit” (Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Whatever It Takes, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars, and Jay Matthews’s Work Hard. Be Nice.). But Carr allows KIPP and TFA advocates to speak for themselves. For example, Kelly reveals his unwavering idealism as it intersects the no-excuses ideology of TFA and KIPP, organizations that attract and encourage privileged young people who believe they can change the world through their own determination.
Instead of silver bullets, Carr presents a nuanced analysis: “A trap confronted schools: If they took the students with the most intense needs, their numbers might suffer. But the state would shut them down if their numbers suffered too much and for too long. Then who would take the neediest?” That analysis is driven by stories. At the end of Part II, Rebirth, Carr quotes Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School:
There are so many stories, she said one afternoon, sitting on a bench under Walker’s breezeway. “I worry that they will get lost, that there’s no one to tell them. My big fear is that all folks will remember is that when Katrina hit, people had to ride in on their white horses and save the children of New Orleans.” She shuddered at the thought.
Yet, stories are often ignored in twenty-first century education after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB, school and teacher accountability has increased, based primarily on high-stakes tests and judged against data such as the achievement gap. Later, a comment from Laurie stands at the center of the education reform movement that Carr’s narrative confronts, unmasks, and exposes powerfully:
“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”
To this, we might add that Laurie’s concern about her charter school in the crucible of New Orleans education reform parallels the often-ignored problem at the center of universal public education in the U.S., a system designed to serve any and all students with equity regardless of background.
While Carr challenges education reform and the limits of good intentions among KIPP and TFA advocates, she also grounds her confrontations in a larger commitment: “At times, both KIPP’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest critics insult and demean the very families they purpose to protect by assuming they, and they alone, know what is best for other people’s children.”
Furthermore, by echoing educator Lisa Delpit’s recognition that many reforms ask less of “other people’s children” by narrowing their learning to worksheets and test-prep, Carr forces critics of KIPP and TFA to examine why many low-income minority parents not only choose no-excuses schools but also enthusiastically encourage no-excuses practices. No-excuses ideologies place an emphasis on authoritarian discipline and a culture of intense personal responsibility that includes teachers and students being held accountable for outcomes that critics warn are beyond the control of either. No-excuses advocates, including parents, embrace the exact paternalism critics challenge.
Carr offers a skeptical voice against education reform mirroring “disaster capitalism” in New Orleans, when markets generate profit from the “blank slate” of disasters (see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein). Yet, she offers nuanced praise when reformers succeed. For example, students are told at KIPP orientation a Cherokee legend about everyone embodying a good and bad wolf. That lesson gains a life of its own among students: “The fable’s power over their actions seemed to suggest that appealing to a person’s high self, no matter whether they are young teenagers or adults, carries more influence than rules or demerits ever could.”
In the middle of the book, Carr discusses Woodson Middle School, supplanted by a KIPP campus after FEMA declared the building irreparable because of Katrina. Woodson Middle had been named for Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s. Woodson “represented an evolution, and radicalization, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy, which emphasized black empowerment through political rights and educational attainment”—a “philosophy…[that] stood in stark contrast to the view of contemporary school reformers” such as Michelle Rhee (TFA recruit, former chancellor of education in Washington DC, and founder of Students First), KIPP advocates, and TFA supporters.
Hope Against Hope is a cautionary tale about ideology—reformers honoring market forces over democratic values by stressing indirect reform through choice and competition instead of reforming directly public institutions when they fail to achieve equity—and the muted and ignored agency of people in their own lives.
As Carr acknowledges in the Prologue, her narrative details “competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America,” but anyone seeking silver bullets, trite slogans, or popular assumptions will find “inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.” Like Kathleen Nolan confronting zero-tolerance policies in Police in the Hallways (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Carr shows that simple solutions cannot remedy complex problems.
Where claims of “miracle” schools and no-excuses mantras stumble, Hope against Hope soars in its bittersweet humanity, the rich and uncomfortable tapestry of living and learning in poverty in twenty-first century America.
Carr’s Epilogue offers advice for reforming education reform: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community—not as a result of its submission.”
To understand U.S. education and education reform, then, Carr’s story of New Orleans is an essential place to start.
Writing about writing instruction, Lou LaBrant, in “The Individual and His Writing” (Elementary Education, 27.4, April 1950) sounded an alarm about “word magic”:
There is other sematic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)
While LaBrant’s message about powerful and clear writing—as well as powerful and clear thinking—remains important lessons for students, it appears that there remains political advantage in word magic, particularly in how leaders frame discussions of education in the U.S. and the importance of the free market.
For example, a persistent refrain from self-proclaimed education reformers, political appointees, and government leaders is “poverty is not destiny.” However, in the U.S. poverty is demonstrably destiny, as is affluence.
“Poverty is not destiny” is word magic, but it doesn’t make that come true. A more credible claim, an ethical claim, is “poverty should not be destiny,” and then we need to do something about it.
In fact, the entire accountability era of education reform built on standards and high-stakes testing along with a variety of market-based reforms is driven almost entire by word magic, and not evidence. Huge claims such as the U.S. economy depends on a world-class public school system continue to dominate public discourse despite decades of research that show little or no positive correlation among test scores, international education rankings, and economic competitiveness. None.
There are, then, two powerful but misleading forms of word magic that must be confronted before genuine and significant education reform can occur in the U.S.: (1) the ability of public schools to overcome poverty, and (2) the ability of the free market to eradicate poverty and inequity. [In short, both are lies.]
Is Education the One True Way Out of Poverty?
Matt Brunig has challenged one of the central uses of word magic in education reform:
The New York Times ran a long and very good article on poverty. In it, they quote Education Secretary Arne Duncan:
“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”
Bruenig concludes: “This thinking is the biggest enemy of poverty reduction. Poor people are poor because they don’t have enough money, not because they don’t have enough education.” In fact, Bruenig has shown that privilege is far more powerful still than education:
So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!
Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.
And thus, turning next to Michelle Rhee’s use of word magic, Bruenig explains:
But I come in when Loomis writes this about Rhee: “Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it.” Anyone who says this is an enemy of poor people, full stop. And there are plenty. Recall earlier Arne Duncan said it: “What I fundamentally believe and what the president believes […] is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”
To be super clear, let’s distinguish between three claims here:
- Education is a way to end poverty.
- Education is the best way to end poverty.
- Education is the only way to end poverty.
These are all false….
In the U.S., poverty is destiny, but poverty should not be destiny. As well, education is not the one true way out of poverty, but education should be more transformative than it currently is.
Word magic surrounding the power of education is also accompanied by number magic—the persistent claim we use to bribe students into taking their education serious (as detailed by the College Board):
The claim suggests that level of education equates positively to higher levels of earning potential. But this too is likely a lie.
Instead the formula is actually as follows:
privilege/poverty = educational access/quality = lifetime earning potential
Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.
And thus the real problem with U.S. public education isn’t international education rankings of test scores, it isn’t having standards that are too low, and it certainly isn’t the need for next-generation high-stakes tests.
As detailed in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Jean Anyon exposed that public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate social class in the U.S.:
In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure….
In the middle-class school, work is getting the right answer….
In the affluent professional school, work is creative activity carried out independently.
Schools, then, are not failing in the ways political leaders claim, trapped as they are in word magic, but are failing to be the transformative public institutions that they could and should be.
The great irony is that the true failure of universal public education is a lesson about the need for the publicly funded Commons and the failure of the free market to achieve ethical goals of democracy and social justice.
Can the Free Market Eradicate Poverty and Inequity?
If any commitment is poisoned by the power of word magic, it is the blind faith afforded the free market in the U.S. The free market holds a misplaced first priority in the U.S.—with the Commons marginalized and demonized. (Despite some simple examples of how the Commons are first in important: How might the free market dependent on private property function in the U.S. without the highway infrastructure, the judicial system, or the police force?)
Embedded in that faith in the free market is, as Bruenig explains, a misconception about poverty itself:
When you say you want to “solve” poverty, you generally assume poverty just exists as an independent-from-policy phenomenon and that we are then going to tackle it with policyinterventions. So we talk about it as if it’s akin to someone being trapped in a burning house that we then come from the outside of to rescue.
But that is not true. Poverty doesn’t just happen. Poverty is created. It is a consequence of policy. We have in our society a set of policies that govern the distribution of income. That set of policies distributes income very unevenly such that a lot of people have very little and are thus impoverished. Poverty is not a thing that just exists that we then try to solve with policy. It is a thing that is brought into existence by our (distributive) policy in the first place. In the burning house metaphor, policy sets the house on fire.
What I am saying is that we should stop setting houses on fire.
Free market capitalism is amoral; in other words, the market has an insular ethic of supply and demand, what the market will tolerate.
For example, during the scar of slavery in the U.S., there was a market incentive to treat slaves as property, but not as humans. Calling for treating slaves as humans was a role accomplished by the Commons, a collective of people driven by human dignity.
But we need not go that far back in history. Consider the HIV-positive scandal in the pornography industry, as reported by Kathleen Miles:
Owning nothing but a backpack full of clothes, Cameron Bay started working as an escort, hoping to rebuild her life. A few months ago, she performed in her first-ever porn scene — an orgy with 10 people, she said. After just nine more scenes, she discovered she has HIV. Nobody’s sure where or when she contracted it.
During her scenes, none of the male performers she had sex with ever used a condom, she said. One female performer told her, “Don’t even bring it up because they have somebody waiting to replace you.”
“I learned that there’s always someone younger and sexier, willing to do something you’re not. It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Bay said in an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post. “I think we need more choices because of that. Condoms should be a choice.”
Cameron Bay is the face of the free market, the human cost of competition without the ethical context of the Commons. Condom use, a regulation, could have provided the safety net if the Commons were afforded first priority. But it isn’t.
And since many here will simply discount the choice this porn actress has made—many will marginalize her with glee, I imagine, disregarding the sexism in her circumstances and the power of reduced circumstances to distort the concept of “choice”—Bay’s comment is exactly why Walmart and other companies across the U.S. can and have turned much of the workforce into wage-slaves: There is always someone willing to take the reduced circumstances of a part-time job without benefits because the horror of poverty exists to keep this dynamic in place for the benefit of those running the free market.
Referring to her opening quote from Alice in Wonderland, LaBrant ended her piece on word magic focusing on democracy:
Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)
Yes, “misuse of language…is a terrible thing,” and few misuses are as damaging as to continue lies about the power of education and the free market to overcome poverty.
Instead of word magic, we must speak and then act about creating an equitable society in which poverty is never created—and within that equitable society, we must also recreate an education system also driven by equity, democracy, and a genuine respect for the dignity of children.
Instead of political lies, we need direct messages about direct action, as Martin Luther King, Jr., represents:
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished….
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
When faced with the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell explained to Bill Moyers that Campbell 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.
Following the unveiling of Ravitch 2.0 in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch now offers Ravitch 3.0 with her newly released Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.
Since Ravitch is a respected historian of education, a brief history seems appropriate for context.
Ravitch 1.0 established herself as a leading scholar of the history of education. She also wrote best-selling and influential books on education beginning in the mid-1970s. During the 1970s and into the early 2000s, Ravitch was associated with conservative politics (notably because of her public service from 1991 to 1993 as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush) and traditional educational philosophy. Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards, high-stakes testing, accountability, and school choice.
With the publication of Death and Life, however, Ravitch 2.0 unveiled a stunning and powerful reversal of positions for Ravitch, who detailed in this popular book how she had come to see that the mounting evidence on the accountability era revealed that standards, high-stakes testing, and market forces were doing more harm to public education than good. In the following year, Ravitch became a highly visible and controversial public face on a growing movement to resist the accountability era and champion the possibility of achieving the promises of universal public education in the U.S.
An additional significant commitment from Ravitch, along with her relentless speaking engagements, was that she began to blog at her own site, creating a public intellectual persona that gave her more latitude than her traditional commitment to scholarship allowed. Ravitch’s blog now stands as a vivid and living documentation of how Ravitch has informed the education reform debate and how Ravitch herself has been informed by the experiences and expertise of an education community that has been long ignored by political leaders, the media, and the public.
Ravitch 2.0, however, remained tempered, often withholding stances on key issues in education, such as the debate over Common Core State Standards, that frustrated some of her colleagues teaching in the classroom, blogging about education, and conducting research on education and education reform.
Now, with Reign, we have Ravitch 3.0, displayed in a comprehensive work that in many ways echoes not only her own blog, but the growing arguments among educators and scholars that much of the reform agenda lacks evidence and that alternative commitments to education reform need to address poverty, equity, and opportunity.
In her Introduction, Ravitch explains her motivation for this book:
[David Denby] said to me, “Your critics say you are long on criticism but short on answers.”
I said, “You have heard me lecture, and you know that is not true.”
He suggested that I write a book to respond to the critics.
So I did, and this is that book. (pp. xi-xii)
Like Campbell, Ravitch confronts competing narratives about the state of education in the U.S. and the concurrent calls for reform. I have labeled these competing agendas as “No Excuses” Reform (NER), the dominant narrative driving policies at the federal and state levels, and Social Context Reform (SCR), a broad coalition of educations, academics, and scholars among whom I’d place Ravitch.
Also in her introduction, Ravitch begins by stating her purpose for the book as addressing four questions:
First, is American education in crisis?
Second, is American education failing and declining?
Third, what is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states?
Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children? (p. xi)
The first twenty chapters of Reign continues a tradition of other important, but too often ignored by politicians and the media, works confronting the false narratives perpetuated about U.S. public education—The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, from the mid-1990s, and Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. by Gerald Bracey, which followed Berliner and Biddle about a decade later.
Ravitch carefully and meticulously discredits claims that U.S. public education is in decline and details that crisis discourse misleads the public about what problems schools do face (messages echoing the work of Berliner, Biddle, and Bracey). Further, while offering a welcomed refrain that poverty and inequity drive most educational struggles, Ravitch details that the research base on most accountability era reform commitments (since the early 1980s) fails to justify those policies—for example, merit pay and linking teacher evaluations to test scores, charter schools, dismantling tenure, Teach for America, online education, parent trigger laws, vouchers and other choice mechanisms, and school closings.
In these opening and foundational chapters, Ravitch 3.0 will not allow a discussion of education and education reform to ignore the corrosive influence of poverty and inequity of opportunity. Ravitch also maintains a compelling and accessible mix of painting a clear and detailed picture of the history of education, the people driving the new reform era, and the research base that now reveals the accountability era is failing.
Readers cannot miss that poverty matters, and should never be allowed to determine children’s destinies (as it does now), and that the driving principle behind a commitment to public education is democracy, and not simply bending to the needs of the market.
Before moving to her alternative reform plan, Ravitch makes a direct statement about school choice advocates that serves well to represent what distinguishes the two competing narratives about education reform:
Conservatives with a fervent belief in free-market solutions cling tenaciously to vouchers. They believe in choice as a matter of principle. The results of vouchers don’t matter to them. (p. 212)
And therein lies the problem between NER and SCR. As Campbell explained above, NER is “stuck” in an ideological commitment that the evidence refutes. Ravitch, however, has maintained her ideological commitment to public education but honored her scholar’s ability to place evidence over beliefs.
From Chapter 20 on, Ravitch provides a powerful opportunity for educators to move beyond reacting to the accountability movement and to begin calling for alternatives to a failed three decades of new standards and the relentless misuse of high-stakes testing. In the last third of the book, Ravitch offers the following:
- Rejecting the rise of school closures as effective policy.
- Calling for prenatal care as a foundation for education.
- Emphasizing the need for early childhood education for all children, but especially children trapped in poverty.
- Shifting the focus on “basics” education to a commitment to a broad and rich curriculum for all children:
We cannot provide equal educational opportunities if some children get access to a full and balanced curriculum while others get a heavy dose of basic skills….The fact of inequality is undeniable, self-evident, and unjustifiable. This inequality of opportunity may damage the hearts and minds of the children who are shortchanged in ways that may never be undone….The essential purpose of the public schools…is to teach young people the rights and responsibilities of citizens. (p. 237)
- Endorsing the importance of low class sizes.
- Rejecting the misguided corporate charter movement but endorsing the original purposes of charter schools envisioned by Albert Shanker as collaborative and experimental and not competition for public schools.
- Stressing the need for wraparound services to support in-school reform—medical care, summer programs, after-school enrichment, parent education.
- Eliminating high-stakes testing and embracing authentic assessment that guides instruction: “Accountability should be turned into responsibility” (p. 273).
- Rejecting demonizing teachers and the teaching profession and embracing instead teacher autonomy and professionalism.
- Protecting democratic control of public schools.
- Addressing directly racial segregation and poverty: “We should set national goals to reduce segregation and poverty” (p. 298).
- Honoring the “public” in education and rejecting the privatization of schools: “We must pause and reflect on the wisdom of sundering the ties between communities and schools” (p. 312).
Toward the end of her plan for alternative policies to reform education, while discussing the problem with privatizing schools, Ravitch sounds what I think is the most dire point confronting the U.S. and our commitment to democracy:
The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation “gifts” to advance privatization of public education. (p. 310)
And the problem is not “whether” this can occur, but that it is happening now.
Legislation across the U.S. is driven by Bill Gates and his billions as well as the celebrity of Michelle Rhee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Jeb Bush while the careful messages crafted by Ravitch in Reign have been readily available through the Internet over the last several years.
The publication of Reign represents a watershed moment. Will money driving ideology continue to ruin our public education system, or will evidence win out?
Ravitch’s voice and scholarship were a needed boost to the field of education. Ravitch speaks with us now.
But until political leadership and the media have similar conversions to Ravitch’s—until evidence trumps money—we are likely to watch the self-fulfilling end to public education happen right before our eyes.
Just to offer some balance and context.
Since Ravitch’s concerns about Common Core came fairly recently, Reign feels a bit incomplete on that topic. Ravitch is clear about her view that the broader accountability movement has done a great deal of harm, and CC appears clearly more of that bad policy, but many of us who strongly oppose CC would likely have preferred more here on that topic.
I also have real problems with Paul Tough and David Kirp (see HERE and HERE), both of whom I feel do work that helps perpetuate “miracle” school narratives and “no excuses” ideologies that I completely reject. Ravitch is far more gracious with Tough and Kirp than I can embrace.
[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.]
During my 18-year career teaching high school English in rural South Carolina, a foundational unit of study included a nine-week focus on non-fiction, highlighting argumentation. In that unit, we examined carefully the lineage of making arguments that depended on ethical authority—spanning from Henry David Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.
An important point, I believed, for young people was how these powerful and influential writers committed themselves to embodying the principles they called for in everyone. In other words, to have ethical authority, all of us must walk the talk. Otherwise, our claims are discredited by our hypocrisy.
Especially in my 30-years as a teacher of young people—many of which were also spent coaching—and in my challenging life as a father for 24 years now, I have found that young people are greatly impressed by adults who practice what they preach, but are quick to discount those of us who venture into hypocrisy.
And thus, I feel compelled to offer all the education reformers who find themselves concerned about the tone of educators, scholars, and academics who are raising a growing voice against education reform that does not hold up to the weight of evidence and increasingly offering alternatives to the failed accountability era built on standards and high-stakes testing, charter school expansion, Teach for America, VAM, merit pay, and related free-market policies a mirror to their own hypocrisy.
If you are an education reformer speaking from a position of privilege or power (Secretary of Education or USDOE official, governor, superintendent of education, billionaire, EdWeek blogger, think tank member, self-appointed leader of a reform organization, etc.) and you have made or intend to make a claim of inappropriate tone aimed at a K-12 teacher, an education researcher, or an education scholar, I must note that any of the following immediately discredits you as having ethical authority, and thus, the mirror:
- If you use “no excuses” discourse, stop it. “No excuses” language implies those of us who teach are making excuses. We aren’t. It is an ugly, ugly implication, and it fails the tone argument.
- If you wave “miracle” schools up as examples of what we all should be doing, stop it. “Miracle” schools don’t exist, and if they did, see above. To suggest some people are simply working harder but the rest of us can’t cut it, again, is an ugly, ugly claim. It too fails the tone argument.
- If you label those of us who support public education as foundational to the U.S. democracy as part of the “government school lobby,” you are being purposefully dismissive and triggering intentionally the anti-government sentiment among the libertarian streak in the U.S. This is misleading, and thus, fails the tone argument for its snark.
- If you accuse any in education of “defending the status quo,” especially after acknowledging the historical and current struggles of high-poverty, high-minority schools, you are making a vicious and malicious claim about people that is untrue. The great irony of such a claim is that it is not only an ugly charge but a foolish argument made by accountability advocates who are calling for a continuation of the ineffective accountability status quo.
- If you accuse any educator of believing that poor children, children of color, or English language learners cannot learn, you have scraped the bottom of the ugly claim barrel. The rare people who genuinely believe such bigotry do exist, but they often have stated such in ways that we can confront and expose. But the vast majority of educators in no way believe such and to imply it is the worst sort of slander.
- If you say teachers don’t want to be held accountable because we speak out against misguided accountability, once, again, stop it. This is more of the laziness and gravy-train narrative that has no place in conversations about professional educators. It is a damned lie.
- If you say experience and certification do not matter—either directly or by supporting TFA—you are discounting an entire profession and central principles of all professions. Experience and qualifications matter. Period. Apply this ridiculous claim to the medical profession and you’ll see the folly. Or airline pilots.
- If you have no experience or background as a K-12 teacher, hold your tongue until you have listened carefully to those who have taught and those who do teach. Your ill-founded arrogance is offensive.
Those who hold positions of privilege are often quick to question the tone of those they deem beneath them. That in itself calls into question the issue of tone. But in the education reform debate, it is also becoming more and more common to promote a false image of MLK as a passive voice in order to keep subordinates in our place.
That, too, is a lie.
King, especially, carried the torch lit by Gandhi that rejected framing either man as a passive leader. They called for non-violent non-cooperation—nothing passive about it.
To call a political appointee someone without qualifications or experience is not a personal attack; it is a fact. And it is something Gandhi and King did.
So let’s stop that game as well.
I end here, then, with a solemn pledge.
If any person in the education reform movement who is concerned about tone will take the first step to reject the mirror items above and to commit to never stooping to them again, I too will join you and likewise honor a similar list of concerns.
Since the reformers have all the power, however, I must ask them to go first—that is, if tone really is the issue (and I suspect it is not).
It’s no surprise that schools in wealthy communities are better than those in poor communities, or that they better prepare their students for desirable jobs. It may be shocking, however, to learn how vast the differences in schools are – not so much in resources as in teaching methods and philosophies of education. Jean Anyon observed five elementary schools over the course of a full school year and concluded that fifth-graders of different economic backgrounds are already being prepared to occupy particular rungs on the social ladder. In a sense, some whole schools are on the vocational education track, while others are geared to produce future doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. Anyon’s main audience is professional educators, so you may find her style and vocabulary challenging, but, once you’ve read her descriptions of specific classroom activities, the more analytic parts of the essay should prove easier to understand. Anyon is chairperson of the Department of Education at Rutgers University, Newark.
Please read “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Jean Anyon*:
In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure….
In the middle-class school, work is getting the right answer….
In the affluent professional school, work is creative activity carried out independently.
Consider also how things have changed little:
*(This essay first appeared in Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, Fall 1980.) “Thank you” to Adam Golub (@adamgolub) for posting this on Twitter.