James Baldwin, “Unable to Believe” Edu-Refomers

O, but if James Baldwin were here to respond to Campbell Brown, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee …

Let’s imagine …

Baldwin unable to believe 2


Teflon, Fatalism, and Accountability

One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:

As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.

Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”

Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.

Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan  and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.

Let me offer a brief example.

Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.

If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.

The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.

I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.

When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before [1]. Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).

The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position [2]) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading [3]) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.

Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?

Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.

Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism [4].

For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.

SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).

The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.

Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.

While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.

For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).

Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.

And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.

Rick VanDeWeghe, expanding on the work of Rick Wormeli, in 2007 confronted how the flawed accountability paradigm remains uncontested, but at the center of Teflon reform’s greatest failure:

This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 [5]). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.

In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)

Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.

The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.

When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.

For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:

There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)

And thus, Wormeli concludes:

Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)

Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):

[2] Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).

[3] This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.

[4] See Freire.

[5] See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading

Innocence or Guilt?: Looking Beyond the Individual

The court room presents a powerful narrative focusing on the innocence or guilt of an accused individual. In the U.S. judicial system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and this principle is embraced as a foundational commitment to individual freedom.

The George Zimmerman trial, however, prompted for many concerns about the effectiveness and objectivity of that judicial system, including fears that jury trials reflect the biases of the jurors and that the victim, Trayvon Martin, was unfairly put on trial as well. Debates also included a convoluted discussion of the laws themselves surrounding the case, notably the stand your ground laws in Florida. If the laws themselves are flawed or inherently corrupt, how can a trial be just?

The court of public opinion is no less focused on individual innocence or guilt. In the education reform movement, a number of scandals have exposed flawed leaders and dysfunctional systems—Michelle Rhee’s reign as chancellor of DC public schools, Tony Bennett’s role in changing school grades in Indiana, a cheating scandal in Atlanta, and misleading tests scores in New York. Each of these individual people and circumstances lends itself to holding one person or a unique situation accountable, but just as any trial can disproportionately focus blame on an individual, it is careless and ultimately dangerous to ignore the wider accountability era while laying (often justifiable) blame at the feet of Rhee, Bennett, Atlanta public school administrators, or the newest testing process in NY.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader confronts readers with the lingering historical horrors of the Holocaust while also weaving an allegory of justice. A central character, Hanna Schmitz, develops a taboo but compelling relationship with a German teen, Michael Berg, many years after she has served as an SS guard at Auschwitz. In the middle section of the novel, Schmitz is on trial for her role at the concentration camp, and the readers of the novel discover that Schmitz’s passion for having Berg read to her grows from her own illiteracy, a key element in how the trial portrays her innocence or guilt.

Readers of Schlink’s novel are likely left torn about Schmitz’s guilt, possibly in ways similar to public opinion about Zimmerman. Schlink, as a lawyer and judge, seems as interested in the larger allegory of justice as he is about the specific horrors of who is culpable for the Holocaust. In fact, the novel suggests that innocence and guilt are not simple, not easily reduced to the acts or decisions of an individual.

Is it possible, the novel asks, that Schmitz is guilty in a nuanced way that is grounded in her illiteracy and the perverse and dehumanizing culture surrounding the Holocaust? Is it then possible that Schmitz is simultaneously guilty but also a victim of forces larger than her?

While I am suggesting no direct comparison between the accountability era and the Holocaust in terms of magnitude, I am compelled to recognize that the allegorical message of The Reader helps inform the potential mistake being layered onto the individual failures represented by Rhee, Bennett, the Atlanta cheating scandal, and the NY test data: Each of these people or circumstances is both an example of individual or situational failures and clear messages about the larger inherently flawed accountability era based on standards, high-stakes testing, and individual accountability (schools, districts, teachers, and students).

Let’s just focus on two recent failures in the accountability era—Bennett and NY test scores. Both, I am convinced, are evidence of specific failures and possibly even unethical behavior by people in power. And I would argue that Bennett and those responsible for testing in NY should all be held accountable for their decisions, actions, and misrepresentations about children, teacher, and schools to the public.

Ultimately, however, that isn’t nearly enough. Assigning grades to schools and all high-stakes testing are the problems; thus, high-stakes testing as a mechanism for labeling, sorting, and ranking schools, teachers, and children is the larger flawed system that Bennett and NY test scores represent.

In the passive voice parlance of avoiding culpability found in the courtroom, it is likely that for Rhee and Bennett “mistakes were made.”

But political, media, and public concern for these individual errors must not end with their individual culpability.

Accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are dehumanizing, counter to genuine teaching and learning, and corrosive to universal public education, democracy, and individual liberty. With this lesson standing before us, then, it is unconscionable to continue down the road of Common Core and “next generation” national tests.

It is no longer credible to argue about how best to implement Common Core, how best to implement new tests, or how best to analyze that data from those tests. It is time to end an era of misguided accountability.

Even under the weight of forces larger and more powerful than any one of us, we must make a decision to confront and end a failed system, and that system is the accountability era begun thirty years ago, but now has proven itself a failure.


“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that has occurred in the last two years despite the economic downturn associated with those corporations and the election of Barak Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist. *

More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates, ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and “Superman” Geoffrey Canada.

Adam Bessie has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests and destined to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores (despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of achievement)—hologram teachers. And Krashen believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers’ misinformation tour. For Anthony Cody, the future is a disturbing dystopia.

While Bessie’s, Krashen’s, and Cody’s commentaries may sound like alarmist stances–possibly even the stuff of fiction—I believe we all should have been seeing this coming for decades.

The science fiction (SF) genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE. A review of the novel describes Vonnegut’s vision of our brave new world:

The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society.

Yes, in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue (although we should note that women’s roles were even more constrained than men’s, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S.). Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult in this society that is simply a slightly exaggerated of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become.

Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking for not only corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut’s vision?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut’s world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerates?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. With corporate America saved, and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasing the corporate model that has been crippling the system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan’s presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk.

If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is more grim—like George Orwell’s 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successfully corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life—and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers—being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (p. 178)

In the novel, Paul’s quest and the momentary rise of a few rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

When Secretary Duncan offers misleading claims about international test scores and bemoans the state of public schools for failing to provide us with a world-class workforce, and almost no one raises a voice in protest (except those of us within the field of education, only to be demonized for protesting), I am tempted to think that we are simply getting what we deserve—like Paul at the end of Player Piano: “And that left Paul. ‘To a better world,’ he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare” (p. 340).

* Slightly revised reposting from OpEdNews (1/3/2011)

See Also

Engineers Own The Future, And Maybe Even Us, Jamie Condliffe


Et tu, Liberal Media?

The erosion of support for the Commons is most distinct in the failure of foundational support for universal public education in favor of the more powerful interests of corporate America. Just as public schools and teachers have no political party, the so-called liberal media have also abandoned public education and America’s workers, teachers.

Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have fallen into the corporate education reform trap by buying into and thus selling the “bad” teacher myth, the charter school scam, the Michelle Rhee self-promotion tour, and the Teach for America masquerade. NBC and MSNBC, along with CNN, have long been marginalized by the Right as shining examples of the liberal media, but all have fallen in line with the corporate education reform agenda through programming such as Education Nation—corporate reform propaganda pretending to be investigative media.

This week, PBS (certainly the gold-standard of liberal media, if we believe public perception) ran an episode of Frontline examining once again Michelle Rhee: “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”

Teachers, scholars, and education activists—including education historian Diane Ravitch—held onto the slimmest glimmer of hope that the unmasking of Rhee would finally come in the form of genuinely democratic media, free of corporate agendas.

However, the program with the tagline “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers” left educators and public school advocates saying, “Et tu, liberal media?”

On balance, PBS provided Rhee yet more media coverage, satisfying her self-promotion, but leaving a tremendous vacuum of things unsaid as well as truly accurate and confrontational responses to Rhee on the cutting room floor.

John Merrow and American journalism have once again failed the democratic purposes of public media and the promise of universal public education.

Merrow, however, has chosen to run a much more detailed and enlightening piece online, in writing, about Adelle Cothorne, leading many to wonder: Why offer the larger and more powerful TV audience Rhee propaganda-lite and bury something closer to Rhee confrontation in an online blog?

The answer is ugly.

The Commons in the form of journalism and education have been consumed by the consumer culture that feeds the Corporate Greed pooling America’s resources in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

Public education, its students, and its teachers have no political party and have no media to fight for the truths that must be revealed if democracy, and not corporate interests, is our goal.


Revisiting Legend of the Fall Series

With the seemingly never-ending media attention paid to Michelle Rhee, I want to share my Legend of the Fall series first posted at Daily Censored during late 2010 and early 2011 (posts confront Rhee [see Parts II and III], Bill Gates, and Geoffrey Canada’s roles in corporate/”no excuses” reform). I regret that much of this remains relevant:

Legend of the Fall

Part I

Thomas, P. L. (2010, October 19). Legend of the fall: Snapshots of what’s wrong in the education debateThe Daily Censored.

Part II

—–. (2010, December 2). The education celebrity tour: Legend of the fall, pt. II. The Daily Censored.

Part III

—–. (2010, December 17). Fire teachers, reappoint Rhee: Legend of the fall, pt. IIIThe Daily Censored.

Part IV

—–. (2010, December 28). Wrong questions = wrong answers: Legends of the fall, pt. IVThe Daily Censored. 

Part V

—–. (2011, January 10). Supermen or kryptonite?—Legend of the fall, pt. VThe Daily Censored. 

Part VI

—–. (2011, February 27). Celebrity “common sense” reform for education–Legend of the fall pt. VIThe Daily Censored.

Part VII

—–. (2011, May 14). Maher’s “Real Time” education debate failure redux: Legend of the Fall, pt. VIIThe Daily Censored.


Self-Serving v. Service: Teaching in a Celebrity Culture

I taught high school English for eighteen years in rural upstate South Carolina, and two students remain with me.

One student on his year-end final exam his junior year proceeded to ignore the exam and write a profanity-laced criticism of me and my course. He turned it in and calmly returned to his seat to wait out the exam period. Once I realized what he had written, I asked him to step across the hall with me where I asked him for an explanation. His anger soon rose up in his throat and he began to cry as he explained how he had felt ignored and unfairly criticized to the point that he gave up during the year.

I told him I wished he had come to me earlier with those feelings, but also said I was sorry. I then met with my principal and arranged for that student to have a little more time to make up some work so he could pass that year. Instead of failing junior English, he was able to enter his senior year, where he joined my soccer team, graduated, and eventually entered college.

Another student in his junior year essentially skirted by all year, barely completing work and rarely fully engaging in class. While we were studying Thoreau, however, he approached me and asked if I could let him borrow a full copy of “Civil Disobedience,” which I did. At the end of the year, despite his grades falling below passing, I awarded him a D and asked if he would enroll in my Advanced Placement Literature course his senior year. After some negotiation with the principal, he was allowed in AP once his parents acknowledged they understood the risk based on his grade in junior English.

This student earned a B in AP Literature, graduated high school, completed college, and eventually earned a Masters in Philosophy.

I think of these students and many, many moments like these every time I see Michelle Rhee.

With each of the above situations, I did not put on a suit and hold a press conference. Despite being a writer and writing numerous books, I have yet to pen a volume with a picture of me on the front cataloguing my success with students.

With the most recent and renewed flurry of Rhee media blitzes, I feel compelled to note that Rhee’s pursuit of her own celebrity is a disturbing example of the plight of teaching in a celebrity culture.

Self-Serving v. Service: Teaching in a Celebrity Culture

Rhee’s Students First has released an evaluation of states’ education policies. With each media report, a photo of Rhee is sure to grace the article. Concurrent with the release is news of yet another book by Rhee, her stern pose on the cover of course, and a Frontline special on Rhee with the tagline: “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers.”

The great irony is that Rhee is self-serving, tracing back to her Teach for America roots, and there is no such thing as bad publicity for a self-promoter. The Frontline tagline is a great example of framing Rhee as both credible (“most admired”) and challenged—although no one ever makes a clear case of just who supports Rhee other than Rhee and the people paid by Rhee and the organizations and people who benefit from Rhee’s celebrity (absent that list, I believe the number of people who “admire” Rhee is relatively close to zero).

Other than Rhee’s new book of self-promotion, the SF grading of education quality accomplishes not proving an accurate analysis of education in the U.S. but solid evidence that Rhee and everything Rhee is about “self.” The SF report measures state education policies against SF agenda points. How much more self-serving can an organization be? (In fact, this is the ideological think tank playbook designed to mask agenda-driven policy as credible scholarship.)

SF’s ranking is so ridiculous, the list of challenges are nearly impossible to catalog: Ravitch and Jersey Jazzman provide a good start.

The corporate reform hucksters and self-promoters like Rhee envision a world where self rules, where life is a competition, and where incentives produce outcomes. This world believes in merit pay and measurement because those things have feed their own over-sized egos.

But teachers are primarily about service, not self-serving.

We don’t want merit pay, and we don’t want to fight among ourselves or with others for the essentials of life.

For teachers, the idealized vision of the Invisible Hand ignores the very real world where children cannot wait on the whims of the market.

The bad news is, in the U.S. self-promoters tend to win because they are the ones creating the battles.

And with this blog of mine, Rhee has won again since I have used her name and indirectly promoted her work.

I regret that deeply, just as I regret her newest move to claim a word I hold dear, “radical.”