Understanding Privilege (Slack) and Poverty (Scarcity) in a Snow Storm

The snow started in South Carolina on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, and when I woke up Thursday, February 13, the snow continued, laying down a powdery blanket on the ice crust formed with several intervening hours of heavy sleet Wednesday afternoon and evening.

This is unusual for the South. The whiteness hides where yards end and the road begins. It is a bit of an unfair characterization—everyone likes to laugh about how wintery weather paralyzes the South—but we are now pretty much frozen in time like the weather outside.

Recently I offered my flat tire story to explain how the conditions of privilege (slack) and poverty (scarcity) are powerful forces that drive human behavior—rejecting the cultural stereotype of poverty being the result of personal laziness.

If you don’t understand the nuance and weight of privilege and poverty, this snow storm should help.

For the salaried class in the U.S.—mostly people in privilege (slack)—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the response is “paid vacation.”

For the hourly class in the U.S.—mostly people confronted with scarcity or the possibility of scarcity—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the falling snow is sand in the hour glass of not getting paid. For the working poor and the working class, time is money.

The privileged are allowed to relax, sip coffee, read that book, and post witty stuff on Facebook.

People living in poverty, in scarcity, or on the very edge of scarcity watch the snow and feel their anxieties rise, the stress of knowing money is not being made, the fear that the snow and ice will cause something unexpected and expensive to happen (beyond their control).

So when those of us in privilege feel that electric shock of realization of something needed while we sit trapped in our homes, a realization pressed up against the reality that we cannot leave the house and will simply have to do without, we are being exposed briefly to the condition of living experienced by people in poverty, the working poor, and the working class every minute of their lives.

We have the privilege of imagining what that must be like.

People living in poverty don’t.

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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

Many Closets, One Fear: How Not to Be Seen

This starts with caveats and clarifications so please be patient.

I am white, male, and heterosexual—by the coincidences of my birth, many of my defining characteristics place me in the norm of my culture and combine to bestow upon me through no merit on my part a great deal of privilege.

Below, then, I am making no claim that the closets I have suffered and that others suffer share some sort of ultimate equivalence even though they share the crippling power of fear. I remain deeply angered at the scars of racism, sexism, and homophobia that linger in my country that claims to be a beacon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I remain deeply angered at the scar of poverty that flourishes in that same country wrapping its crass consumerism and capitalism in the flag in order to continue to ignore inequity.

But as a privileged person, I too understand the weight of the closet and the paralysis of fear so I am venturing into this not as a pity party, not as navel gazing, and not to make some grand claim that I know what it is like to be the daily victim of racism, sexism, or homophobia, what it is like to be homeless or hungry.

I don’t.

This, however, is a place to offer a few words about the intersections that may at first not seem like intersections at all: Jason Collins coming out of the closet, the Boston Marathon bombing, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and other “no excuses” schools.

“Stones can make people docile and knowable,” writes Foucault [1]. “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure—thick walls, a heavy gate that prevent entering or leaving—began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (p. 190).

Here, Foucault is being literal, confronting the culture of control that is housed in social institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. But I want to consider the enclosure of the metaphorical closet before coming back to the role of the brick-and-mortar school below.

My privilege built on gender, race, and sexuality (all elements of my being I have not chosen, but essentials of whom I am) has contributed to my existential angst of coming to recognize throughout my life the equally important aspects of my Self that are distinctly outside cultural norms.

In my late 30s, I began to experience panic attacks, notably ones not directly associated with an event but attacks that were, as best as I can describe them, the manifestation of a war with myself. The attacks came upon me any time I tried to sleep, relax, and this was when my Normal Self let down the guard enough for the real and true me to begin to fight for the surface.

Again, I don’t want to belabor my personal struggles, but I do want to emphasize that the human condition is fraught with closets of many kinds that are joined by fear.

My closeting has always been an existential one: I have never felt the sort of normal response to religion that others appear to embrace (a powerful closeting condition in the South), but even more profoundly, I recognize my worldview as completely out of kilter with almost all other humans. It has created for me an often overwhelming sense of alienation.

What often is left unspoken is that it is in the moments of conflict between who we truly are and who we are expected to be that we feel self-conscious, we imagine that all eyes are on us, judging us, recognizing us for who we truly are in order to banish us from the community. For me, it is the never-ending ritual of “Let us pray…” or that split second when someone says something and everyone else nods in agreement while I calculate the damage that would be done if I said my piece. Both of these seem trivial to me in the text I just typed, but the cumulative effect of this daily, I think, must not be discounted—particularly as it occurred in my childhood and youth.

Closets exist because humans come to recognize two forces—who we truly are and who the World around us demands that we be. If who we truly are doesn’t match the demand, we often gather the stones to build our closets because above all else we are afraid of not being accepted, not being loved, not being cherished for who we truly are.

Even in our moments of such recognitions, we reach out for someone to join us:

I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The closet, then, is a place to hide, how not to be seen. However, the human condition involves a drive not only to be seen, but also to be accepted, embraced. This has been profoundly demonstrated in Jason Collin’s own words about his motivation for confronting his sexuality within the exponentially judgmental worlds of social and athletic homophobia and normative expectations for being fully a man.

This tension between being seen and not being seen is at the center of Foucault’s culture of control: “This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable mechanisms….The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly” (p. 191).

Constant surveillance, then, achieves two ends: The power and coercion of normalizing (control, obedience), and the creation of anxiety, fear, where neither are warranted: “The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (p. 195).

The existential angst within the human condition, made more pronounced from within our many closets, confronts the concrete structures recognized by Foucault—hospitals, schools, prisons—but also now confronts a pervasive surveillance that was identified and then normalized itself because of the Boston Marathon bombing—the Brave New World of constant surveillance through smart phones, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and the interconnectivity afforded through the Internet.

The normalizing came in the form of repeated comments from political leaders, law enforcement, and the media that the constant surveillance has now shown itself as essential for our safety—from the (criminal) Other, our mechanisms for the middle-class cocoon.

“Similarly,” Foucault explains, “the school building was to be a mechanism for training” (p. 190).

Building on Foucault’s recognition of the structures within a culture of control, DeLeuze details:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)

And now the intersections among closeted existences, fear, constant surveillance and the Boston Marathon bombing, and the “age of infinite examination” that is education reform built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.

First let’s zoom in to the life of the student, specifically the student marginalized in her/his home and community and then marginalized in her/his school: “a pupil’s ‘offense’ is not only a minor infraction, but also an inability to carry out his tasks,” Foucault explains (p. 194), predating significantly the new norm of “no excuses” school cultures as captured by Sarah Carr’s look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the rise of KIPP and similar charter schools:

The reformers approach students they perceive as disadvantaged in much the same way they do struggling teachers….[L]ow income children must be taught, explicitly and step-by-step, how to be good students. Staff at a growing number of “no-excuses” charter schools…are prescriptive about where new students look (they must “track” the speaker with their eyes), how they sit (upright, with both feet planted on the ground, hands folded in front of them), how they walk (silently and in a straight line, which is sometimes marked out for them by tape on the floor), how they express agreement (usually through snaps or “silent clapping” because it’s less disruptive to the flow of class), and, most important, what they aspire to (college, college, college). This conditioning (or “calibration” or “acculturation”…) starts with the youngest of students. (pp. 42-43) [2]

“The disciplinary mechanisms,” Foucault explains, “secreted a ‘penalty of the norm,’ which is irreductible in its principles and functioning to the traditional penalty of the law” (p. 196). Carr and Nolan, in her ethnography of zero tolerance policies in urban high schools [3], shine a light on how schools and the penal system have merged in the U.S. for “other people’s children”—creating both a school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons.

CCSS and the high-stakes tests designed to enforce those standards, then, are yet a logical extension of the broader purposes of school to control, an institution that “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes[,]…normalizes” through the mechanism of tests:

The order that the disciplinary punishments must enforce is of a mixed nature: it is an “artificial” order, explicitly laid down by a law, a program, a set of regulations. But it is also an order defined by natural and observable processes: the duration of apprenticeship, the time taken to perform an exercise, the level of aptitude refer to a regularity that is also a rule. (Foucault, pp. 194-195)

As well, Deleuze recognizes education is in a contant state of crisis, reform, and standardization, within which schools, teachers, and students can never finish. Our Brave New World of standardization and “infinite examination” is one of international rankings, school rankings, teacher rankings, and student rankings—all of which assure that virtually everyone cannot possibly measure up; number two is perpetually the first loser.

“The power of the Norm appears throughout the disciplines,” adds Foucault:

The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of the ecoles normales (teachers’ training college)….Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. (p. 196)

A culture of control is the antithesis of a community.

A culture of control uses the normative gaze to breed conformity and to excise the Different from the herd.

A community reaches out, lends a hand, opens arms. A community is an invitation to the recognition of the humanity that joins all people despite the diversity among us individually.

Many closets, one fear—this should speak to our hearts in a way that moves us beyond cultures and societies of control and toward a community.

We should also come to see that our culture of control is built upon and perpetuated by a dehumanizing education mechanism grounded in surveillance and fear.

Just as fear is the wrong motivation for embracing the perpetual surveillance created by smart phones, cameras on every street corner, and the Internet, fear is the wrong motivation for how we build our schools.

Ultimately, KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools, CCSS, and the perpetual churn of education reform are the consequences of fear.

Ceaseless school reform is irrational and heartless; it is building closets from the stones of test scores.

Ceaseless school reform creates schools and a society in which we all must find ways not to be seen, fearful if we take the risk to stand as our true selves in that open field we too will be shot down like a punch line in a comedy sketch.

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See “The means of correct training” from Discipline and punish.

[2] Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

[3] Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.