Approaches to Education Reform: Privatizing Poverty

Part of the sordid side of our American history includes Native American boarding schools.  In the 18th and 19th century, these schools were established as a means of assimilating Native Americans into white culture.  As Wikipedia tells it, “Children were usually immersed in European-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their Native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new European-American names (in order to both ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’). The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, they were encouraged or forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.” (Emphasis added)

The assumption was that these children had to be separated from their parents, from their history, from the context of their support system of religion and culture in order to properly assimilate to white standards of “success.” And this needed to happen because all of the Native American cultural characteristics were of a lower standard than the dominant white culture. in 1892, Army officer Richard Pratt said“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

With the passage of time, it’s a little easier to see the racism, arrogance and violence inherent in this idea. And I know it seems like ancient history, but it isn’t.  The numbers of native Americans in boarding schools peaked in the 1970’s.  Not really that long ago.

The framing assumptions underlying this movement were that of the deficit model.  That is, by standards of the dominant white culture, these Native Americans just weren’t “measuring up.”

Is this beginning to sound familiar?

The problem with  history is that it always replicates itself now, albeit in somewhat differently nuanced forms.

And that bring us to a brand new, shockingly contemporary version of the above in Phil Power’s recent editorial in The Bridge, “Could A Boarding School Model Work in Detroit?”

Powers gives an overview:

“I had thought boarding schools for poor and vulnerable children did not exist until I learned of something called the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., which does just that. …

Children are chosen for admission by lottery, which means their participation is entirely by family choice, not imposed by some exterior authority. Kids stay on campus during the school week, returning home for the weekends.”

Let me be clear- I do not begrudge parents who choose to send their children to these schools one iota. Children are chosen by lottery, it’s not imposed without choice, and for many I’m sure it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I wish these parents and their children well. This is an important difference to note between SEED and the Native American boarding schools. My problem is not with them, it’s with Power and others who privatize the problem of poverty and assume education is the answer, rather than assuming that addressing poverty is actually the answer to problems with our education system.

I give Power some credit, as he does recognize there are issues with this model,

“Beyond the purported educational advantages, there are obvious and important social and moral questions about such a system.”

But then he continues,

But for kids in enormous need of a stable, sustaining home environment that encourages good learning, a public boarding school model might make all the difference in the world.”

The implicit assumption is that the problem lies within home environments rather than in the structural conditions of inequity that lead to difficult conditions in the first place. And this implicit assumption is the red herring directing attention away from the social context that learning takes place within, and replacing that with the individualistic notion that overcoming poverty simply entails pulling yourself up by the boot straps. You know, “they” need just a little “grit.”

In a story on the Native American boarding schools from NPR, their purpose is made clear.  “…the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out.’Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything,'”  Why?  Their culture didn’t measure up.  And we can see the ghosts of this approach in Power’s piece. Kids need a “stable, sustaining home environment….”  The problem from Power’s frame, is not the conditions of poverty, but the home environment.  One more, subtle and tricky way of blaming the poor.

In addressing the false myth of individualism, which Power subtly propagates in his privatizing of poverty, Paul Thomas writes:

“The U.S. is trapped in our false myths—the rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our pervasive cultural ethos is that all failures lie within each person’s own moral frailties, and thus within each person’s ability to overcome. We misread the success of the privileged as effort and the struggles of the impoverished as sloth—and then shame those in poverty by demanding that they behave in ways that the privilege are never required to assume.”

I’m reading William Deresiewicz’s  Excellent Sheep, in which he asks the rhetorical question, “Can we address the problems of education without addressing the broader problems of societal inequity?”  Hmm..

Phil Power seems to say yes.

I say it’s pretty to think so, but absolutely not.

Power finishes his work with this sentence:

“The compelling moral argument is that ALL kids deserve a quality education.”

I say this doesn’t go far enough.

The compelling moral argument is that no one deserves to live under the dehumanizing conditions of poverty. And, because education is inextricably tied to the conditions it exists within, attempting to “solve” education without addressing poverty is a waste of time.

Coloring Within the Lines

Does this seem familiar to anyone else?

In writing of the degree of misery that our education system currently inflicts on our status seeking students, William Derersiewicz writes:

“It would be bad enough if all this misery were being inflicted for the sake of genuine learning, but that is quote the opposite of what the system now provides. Our most prestigious colleges and universities love to congratulate themselves on the caliber of their incoming students:  their average SAT scores, the proportion that comes from the top 10 percent of their high school class, the narrowness of the admissions sieve that lets them in, all the numbers U.S. News & World Report has taught us now worship. And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared.

How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life.  Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you in front of them, they’ll clear. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize thirty lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Every single kid got every single line correct, down to the punctuation marks.  Seeing them write out the exercise in class, she said, was a thing of wonder, like watching Thoroughbreds circle a track.

The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test.  Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds. I was talking with someone who teaches at a branch campus of a state university.  His students don’t think for themselves, he complained. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League- bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development, one that they directed by themselves and for themselves…

…kids are eager to accept creative challenges, but only as long as it will get them an A.” (Emphasis added)

Deresiewicz is careful through the rest of his book to be sure to not blame the students for this system but to place the blame on the rest of us, where it belongs.

I encourage all to read Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.

Democracy is For Some People

” None of us is free until all of us are free.”  Martin Luther King

Let me start by being very clear.

I am a patriot. I am a believer in the stated ideological foundations of the United States of America.

I am a believer, for instance, in the ideal of democracy.

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:
“capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”

synonyms: representative government · elective governmentPowered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press\

Yes, good old-fashioned democracy. The governing by the whole population “typically through elected representatives.”

And when I, as an idealistic citizen of the United States of America, see situations that undermine democracy I get a wee bit upset.

With this context in mind, let me bring you up to date on the establishment and recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

First of all, let’s go back to the ideal of democracy and the fact that this coalition is making recommendations to the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder.  Consider:

*  That the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education, in exile since the imposition of a governor appointed (i.e., not democratically elected) emergency financial manager, did not have a say in the recommendations.

*  That it is clear who did have a say- the members of the  Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

With all due respect, how were they picked?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Everywhere I search, news articles say this coalition was “created” or mysteriously “formed.”

Duh. We know the coalition was created, and that, as a result of this creation, it also was formed. So much for investigative journalism.

Who created it?  The evidence suggests that it came from the Skillman Foundation.  It’s important to note that a foundation has co-opted, intentionally or not, the task of what was formerly given to democratically elected governmental agencies. A foundation has somehow taken, been given, or had this task land its lap.

To me, as a believer in the democratic principles supposedly inherent in these United States, that is a problem.

The coalition has 5 co-chairs, and for the sake of my framing, as an example, I would like to focus on one of them, John Rakolta.  Now, I don’t pretend to know John, his perspective or his intentions.  In fact, I think it’s important to note that, given all of the evidence since his involvement with the coalition, it seems that he has been open-minded and fair.  (See, for instance, his pointing out that the state is responsible for much of DPS’s debt accumulated while under the control of emergency management.) My gripe is not with John Rakolta, but with the usurpation of democracy that has placed John Rakolta as co-chair deciding the fate of public schooling in Detroit.

Rakolta is the white, very rich CEO of Walbridge Construction, a company that has been involved in a number of construction projects for the very poor, over 80% black Detroit Public Schools.  On the surface, it seems that this might be a conflict of interest.  On another level, the question comes to me, how does the CEO of a construction company (or anyone else for that matter) become a co-chair of this coalition? Who elected him?  Is this how a democracy is supposed to function?  According to the web-site of the Skillman foundation, the coalition is made up of, “…independent, diverse cross-section of Detroit leaders who came together to move swiftly to make recommendations for changes that will improve the city’s education system.” Who determined what a “Detroit leader” is? Who didn’t? Why is the decision-making process that has historically been made by elected school board members given over to unelected “Detroit leaders” as determined by a foundation?


Again, I have no perspective on the intentions of Rakolta or anyone else involved with this project.  My question simply is, who put them in charge, and why do their recommendations trump the recommendations of others in a functioning democracy? Why do these chosen but unelected officials have more say than the fairly elected representatives of the citizens and parents in Detroit?

In trying to get at some answers it may get a bit complicated, so hang with me.

Let’s start by conducting a thought experiment.

Imagine that your local community (or use Grosse Pointe, or Birmingham, or Bloomfield as potential examples) had their locally controlled, democratically elected school board replaced first by an emergency financial manager, and then by a group of self-appointed citizens. How might that be accepted?

My guess? Not so well.

So why is it ok in a city that is 80% black with 40% living in poverty?

I’m stuck with the conclusion that it is ok because that city is 80% black, with 40% living in poverty.

Oh, did I play the race card? I’m sorry.

Let me be more subtle, then, and quote the all too common sentiment of Gary Naeyaert, the head of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro school choice advocacy group, as printed in the Gongwer News Source,

“Enough is enough, and it’s about time we recognized that the Detroit Public Schools are academically and financially bankrupt, and they’ve lost the privilege of educating children in Detroit,” Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said in a statement.”  (Emphasis added)

I’m guessing, then, that democracy is a privilege afforded to some, and not to others. Coincidentally, the places where that privilege is denied is in cities that are overwhelming black and poor, with eroded infrastructures that make financial and academic issues exceedingly difficult to address.  In other words, because of the organizing principles of poverty and race, because of the increased financial and academic stresses caused by such circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many involved in working in such stressed conditions (to be fair, many of whom served as members of the Skillman coalition), all driven by the false narrative of “failing schools,” “they” deserve to have the “privilege” of democracy removed. It seems “they” haven’t earned it in these United States. Such an attitude might be likened to colonialism- that old idea that, since “they” obviously can’t make their own decisions, “we” need to “help them.”

Now many people will say that my analysis simply isn’t realistic. That, in the real world, such a lens simply isn’t politically practical. That it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to think this way.  Many people will say, what’s the beef?  Look at the results- the coalition actually made three huge, and, to me, surprise recommendations- to have the state of Michigan assume much of DPS’s debt, to dissolve the controversial EAA, and to return power back to the DPS board of education (kind of).

My problem, again, starts with the undemocratic nature of this process itself.  It is a process that wouldn’t be allowed, at this time at least, in other communities.

Let’s be honest. Democracy is for some people.

And it also is a process that concluded with a recommendation that retains control in an entity that is outside the auspices of democracy.  It is returning some power back to the board, but, in spite of the rhetoric, much of the actual and deciding power is recommended to stay with another newly created coalition, essentially creating a portfolio system.

“Regarding the coordination and oversight across the education sectors

  • The State establish a new, lean board/legislative body, the Detroit Education Commission, to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions for all Detroit schoolchildren, with members appointed by the Mayor. The DEC will set and hold all schools to the same performance standard.”

In other words, the DPS school board will work under the umbrella and auspices of the Detroit Education Commission. So yes, democracy is reinstated, at least, you know, kind of. Right?

In a very real, very practical way, democracy is only for some people.

Honestly, I have no illusions that this will go away.  I have no illusions that Governor Snyder will reinstate democracy in Detroit.

But I do think we should all be asking ourselves an important question:

Is this what we should accept in these United States?

Skull Measurements, Achievement Data and the Destruction of the Public School System

In the 1880’s, a white anthropologist named Samuel Morton theorized that the relative intelligence of different races could be determined by measuring and comparing skulls.  He then took to measuring hundreds of skulls and concluded that based on his results, of course races could be ranked by intelligence.

Guess who came out on top in Morton’s system?

Yep.  White people.

The bottom?

People of African descent.

And when the evidence didn’t support his theory Morton just rewrote history. He concluded that, according to his measurements, the people of Ancient Egypt were white.

With the passing of time, it is easy to see Morton’s science as a racist imposition of so-called objective science on “reality.”


It’s a little bit more difficult to see the racist impositions of so-called “objective measures” upon reality today, but such impositions nonetheless exist.  And, though they are difficult to see, they are not hard to find. Simply look at any form of measurement that proposes to determine invisible characteristics that are difficult to quantify, such as  intelligence, and then designs a ranking and sorting system that concludes with whites ranked above people of color.  Some measures simply quantify “reality” without ranking and sorting.   Others ostensibly quantify, but actually translate “reality” and call it real just as Morton did.

Let’s try using this filter.  Does it apply to poverty?  No, poverty is a fairly straightforward, visible, measurable characteristic once we agree on a level of income that determines it.

How about achievement in school?

Now we’re talking.

What is it?  It depends on who you ask.

How do you measure it?  I have no idea, especially since I’m not sure what it means, but the superficial and all too easy answer has become, you use a standardized test.

Whose standards are used in a standardized test?  The standards of dominant culture.

What is the organizing principle of the standards of dominant culture?


And what are the results?

Exactly the same ones that Morton arrived at.

Yes.  High-stakes standardized testing takes its place in a long historical line of impositions of racist assumptions upon “reality.” Morton would be proud.

My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color are “under-performing” in schools.  My point is that the design and context of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called “reality.” My point is that the tests, like Morton’s measuring of skulls, actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.

History Replicating Itself

Morton was a part of the eugenics movement, an overtly racist scientific attempt to explain racial differences in status by genetics.  This movement has been discredited, but it’s important to remember that in its time it was highly respected as an objective, scientific explanation.   In our time, as Harold Berlak points out in Race and the Achievement Gap, genetics as the explanation of racial differences has been replaced by explanations of culture and history.

“Recently a more subtle form of ‘scientific’ racism has gained some respectability. The inferiority of the Black and brown races is now said to lie not necessarily in genetics but in culture and history. This more quietly spoken academic version of the master-race ideology has also been thoroughly dismantled, yet racist explanations for the race gap persist.”

So the structures that benefit one race over another still exist, but the language used now makes those structures more difficult to see. We know that when we look at DNA there is no such thing as race.  We know that race is a social construction with implications of power. What is more difficult to see is the language used to construct and reify these differences.

How This Works With Standardized Testing

What follows are some of the factors that instantiate racial outcomes into standardized tests and the contexts they occur within:

* Stereotype vulnerability: Berlak discusses a study done by psychologist Claude Steele which explored the differences in how white and black students mentally frame testing situations.  In this study, black students who were told that the test was a valid measure of academic ability and capacity scored much worse than those who were told that the test was a not a measure of ability, but of psychological factors involved in problem solving.  The black students who were told the test was looking at psychological factors rather than ability scored equal to the white students.  The white students scores were consistent in both situations.

“The explanation Steele offers is that Black students know they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability. Groups not stereotyped in this way do not experience this extra intimidation. He suggests that it is serious intimidation, implying as it does that if they should perform badly, they may not belong in walks of life where their tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested.’ He labels this phenomenon ‘stereotype vulnerability.'”

* The ways in which the curriculum of the dominant culture shapes the schooling experience of students of color: Berlak points to a study completed by anthropologist Signithia Fordham.

“She concludes that for African-American students, patterns of academic success and underachievement are a reflection of processes of resistance that enable them to maintain their humanness in the face of a stigmatized racial identity. She shows that African-American adolescents’ profound ambivalence about the value and possibility of school success is manifest as both conformity and avoidance. Ambivalence is manifest in students’ motivation and interest in schoolwork, which of course includes mastery of standardized test-taking skills….

Fordham found that even the most academically talented African-American high school students expressed profound ambivalence toward schooling and uncertainty that they will reap the rewards of school success. Virtually all African Americans she interviewed indicated that a central problem facing them at school and in larger white society is the widely held perception by whites that African Americans are less able and intelligent and their continuing need to confront and deal with this reality in everyday experience.”

* Racial Bias Built Into Tests:  Many of us are aware of the ways that the unconscious bias of the dominant culture is integrated seamlessly into test questions.  The example often given is the abandoned question from the SAT that asks students a question referring to a “regatta.”  Who knows what a regatta is? People who have enough wealth to provide them access to boats.  The cultural bias is clear. Fair Test explains it this way:

“According to other research, items which facilitate ranking and sorting are often items which, perhaps unintentionally, factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. Such items help create consistency in test results, but they often are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children, who also typically have access to a stronger academic education.”

Less well known is the bias that is built into the scoring of the tests.  Fair Test does an excellent analysis of this in explaining “bi-serial correlation.”

“To obtain higher consistency (and hence technical reliability) on the test, Texas follows the typical practice of using items with the highest correlation values. This procedure means that on items covering the same materials, the ones with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers will be used. Because minority group students typically perform less well on the test as a whole, the effort to increase reliability also increases bias against minorities…

This common test development procedure exacerbates the existing inequities of schooling. When used in high-stakes testing, biserial correlation helps ensure that at least some students who know the material and ought to pass the tests do not. Those students are overwhelmingly low-income, of color, with English as a second language, or have special needs.”

John Loflin nicely summarizes these factors:

“…the standardization of high stakes tests is based on: 1) “normalcy” and epitomized via norm-referencing tests where some will always fail regardless of actual achievement, 2) a history of racial discrimination associated with the testing–particularly in how tests are calibrated–as well as the cultural bias associated with intelligence measurement such as IQ, and 3) the eugenic deficit model of humanity, a model with neither scientific nor moral merit.”

So What?

What does this mean?

It means we simply can not continue to use measures that have unconsciously pre-determined an outcome, pretend shock at the outcome, and then focus all of our energy on changing the outcome after the fact. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions that create the outcome in the first place? Doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions of inequality organized around poverty and race?

It means that when we are unavoidably involved in anything to do with “achievement data” we must act with the recognition that such data is not a reflection of ability.  Nor is it a reflection of achievement.  It is simply a marker of privilege. “Achievement data” tells us what we already know from history – our society is full of inequalities, and race and poverty are the organizing principles of these inequalities. This data, taken as real, has become the lever for the current education reform movement that is decimating our public education system.  It follows that the use of it hurts students of color and  white students.  It hurts poor students and rich students.  It hurts all educators who recognize that places of belonging are fundamental to learning, rather than places of ranking and sorting. As school superintendent David Britten eloquently puts it, “I firmly believe the evidence is unassailable that the end game is the complete destruction of the public school system, since it is the one substantial threat to maintenance of class structure, dilution of power, and eventual downfall of an expanding oligarchy.” (In the comments section of this excellent post.)

So let’s top talking about “achievement” and let’s start talking about learning.  Let’s stop standardized testing and instead focus on contextual assessment and useful feedback.

And let’s stop talking about the “achievement gap” and start addressing the conditions of inequality that it reflects.

Governor Snyder and Direct Control

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder signed an executive order that moved the state’s school reform office from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

That may be one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever written.

But, as a helpful attempt to reinforce its truthfulness, I am going to write it again.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed an executive order that moved the state’s school reform office from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

If you still don’t believe, check this.

There are many things to consider regarding Snyder’s decision. For example, why is a category with the title “school” not placed within a department that includes the label “education”? But that seems silly.  (For another solid example that isn’t silly, see this.) I want to explore here the  values that such a move represents. And since Governor Snyder has said nothing that I can find, I am going to use an article written by the Detroit News  as the text that will provide us some insight into those values.

After a questionable beginning in which the article, Snyder Right to Move Reform Office,” refers to Snyder’s frustration over “the lack of progress in Detroit schools” without explaining that this “lack of progress” has occurred under a series of Snyder appointed Emergency Managers, the actual situation is explained fairly dispassionately.

“The reform office has oversight of the 5 percent of schools that are the lowest-performing in the state. And it works along with the independently run Education Achievement Authority, the reform district that operates 15 of the worst schools in Detroit.”

These are indisputable factual observations.  What it doesn’t also say is that the EAA was created with immense controversy and continues as a colossal failure, a judgement that is reaching consensus in Michigan.  It also doesn’t say that the EAA was developed by Snyder, and that the EAA moved schools out of the Detroit Public Schools into the newly created Reform District.

Are you sensing any patterns regarding Snyder’s propensity for movement?

The article continues with less dispassion.

“Snyder has longstanding frustrations with the State Board of Education, the elected panel that oversees the department, and its lack of commitment to reform. The Democrat-majority board is responsible for electing the state superintendent. Superintendent Mike Flanagan is retiring in June, and the board is in the process of finding his replacement.”

The State Board of Education is a democratically elected board that operates independently of Snyder.  Its members are each accountable to the public that elected them.  Also note the opinion stated as fact, “…its (the board’s) lack of commitment to reform.”  I’m not sure where this comes from.  I’m not sure what it means.  I am sure that the 3 candidates that the board has narrowed their choice to have each shown a strong commitment to public education.  I worry greatly that support of public education is misconstrued as support of the “status quo,” and that “status quo” has become  code for “the continuation of public education.”

“By issuing the executive order, Snyder is giving a clear warning to the board that if it chooses a superintendent that is resistant to the kind of education reforms the administration seeks, even more control could be taken away from the department….Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, is a finalist, and she is definitely on Snyder’s radar as an opponent of school choice.”

Now maybe we are getting closer to some insight.  This move is meant as a threat to the elected state school board. It also points out Markavitch specifically as being “…on Snyder’s…radar as an opponent of school choice.”  So maybe the unstated assumption is that if you are against school choice you are for the “status quo”?  And it seems certain that school choice here is a good thing.  And what does school choice mean? I’m not entirely certain, but I assume (in my attempt to make my assumptions clear) that it means more charters, vouchers, cyber schools, private schools, non-union teachers, segregation by class and race and ability, Teach For America and lots of profit.  I could be wrong, but I think it’s at least ok to question the assumption that school choice is a good thing. You see, in a democracy we ask questions, and asking questions has been the necessary historical purview of a free press.  (Take note Detroit News.)

The article ends with these paragraphs:

“Snyder is already seeking counsel from this broad Detroit coalition forming a blueprint for fixing city schools. The group is expected to have its recommendations ready by the end of this month.

The governor wants community backing for the next round of reforms. But whatever form that plan takes, Snyder’s direct control of the school reform office should help with the execution of the new agenda.

Snyder has contemplated moving the reform office for a while. This was the right time to do it.” (Emphasis added)

So Snyder is seeking counsel from a group, the Detroit coalition, that he put together.  All of the available evidence suggests that Snyder is fine in receiving counsel from people who think  like him. This thinking is ideological and runs contrary to  all readily available contrary evidence. (As an example, see this article from the Detroit New’s conservative editor on how that DPS Emergency Manager thing is working out.)  And when Snyder doesn’t like what he hears, he moves things around, literally, so that he no longer has to listen.

And yet, “Snyder wants community backing for the next round of reforms.”  He certainly has an interesting strategy for gaining community backing, doesn’t he? Please. He doesn’t care about community backing.  If he did, the EAA would no longer exist.  If he did, he wouldn’t insist that Emergency Managers take the place of a democratically elected school boards (i.e. “community backed”). If he did, he wouldn’t act as a dictator, he would operate within the constraints of democracy.

What he does want is to institute his ideology with as little resistance as possible. This is certainly much easier when you have “direct control,” which is another way of saying, “Without the obstacle of the complex messiness that democratic processes bring with them.”

Such processes intentionally include a variety of voices and perspectives, and intentionally remove “direct control” from anyone.

Because we used to recognize that the direct control of one leader is the organizing principle of fascism.

The Shock Doctrine- Alive and Well in Michigan

Symptomatic of what is occurring in education across the nation, Detroit Public Schools are deep in debt.

Detroit, though, is somewhat unique in that they have in place an autocratic and unilateral leader appointed by the Governor of Michigan.  They have an Emergency Manager, a person appointed at the governor’s behest to alleviate a financial situation that has been deemed by such governor to be an “emergency.”

DPS Financial HistoryIn Detroit Public Schools, this has led to the marginalization of a perfectly capable and democratically elected school board.  It has promoted the market fundamentalists’ premier value of economic efficiency over democracy, and it has done so at the expense of the economic health of the district, the academics of the students affected, and the community’s agency as expressed via the accountability of a democratically elected school board. It is no small thing to again point out the irony of the fact that Emergency Management has been installed at the expense of  the district’s financial viability.  (For more on this sordid history, please read Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s excellent account.)

So what is the governor going to do now with this mess he has exacerbated? According to The Detroit News, “Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is exploring ways to link a change in governance of public education in Detroit with ‘financial relief’ for the debt-ridden and cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools.

Hmm..little mention of here of the structural conditions that led to such a situation.

No mention of the damning, incomplete, and false narrative of “failing schools.”

Although there are some hints if you read between the lines.

Since DPS is managed by its fourth emergency manager in six years, the issue of giving the district some financial breathing room looms large as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren tries to craft a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.

See, it seems that there is a glimmer of understanding that an Emergency Manager- the fourth in six years- has simply not worked.  The solution? “…a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.”

Again, if you read between the lines you will note who is not able to pursue anything in the legislature -the people of Detroit whose children are affected. You see, their voices have been silenced.

More hints of what might be to come?

Snyder wants the plan before spring so he can pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year, Walsh said.

Walsh, a Livonia Republican, was term-limited from the House last year and joined Snyder’s staff in January. He since has worked closely on Detroit and urban education reform issues with Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana schools chief credited with turning around the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Last summer, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has invested heavily in the EAA schools, sent Pastorek to Michigan to assist Snyder’s office in studying education reform in Detroit.

The 36-member coalition is exploring reforms that include common enrollment and the creation of a new commission that could have governance power over all DPS…

So what is this really about?  In order to learn, we need to follow the bread crumb trail ( in this particular nightmare that means “money”) to New Orleans.  The Broad Foundation, whose marketing brand reads, “Entrepreneurship for the public good in education,” a sentence whose inherent contradiction is mind-boggling, has funded Paul Pastorek as an advisor to the Michigan Governor as he looks for a system that he can use to, “ pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year.” 

As the governor wrings his hands about the debt DPS is incurring.

Sound familiar?

Let’s see- the creation of massive financial insecurity that allows for radical structural changes which will then allow for corporate profit at the expense of democracy and local communities? Yes, the Shock Doctrine!

To those familiar with the history of public schooling in New Orleans it will sound all too familiar.  (Thank you Paul Pastorek.)

And for those not familiar, please rapidly learn about the NOLA history, as it’s coming to a school near you.

As a public service I offer the video below.  (From New Orleans Education Equity.)

And as a succinct encouragement to view, I offer this quote from the video:

A lot of money has come into New Orleans to open up new schools. That actually incentivizes school failure. The more schools fail, the more money certain organizations get to open new schools….closing schools simply gets the money changing hands again.” 

It’s easy to predict that a lot more money will be soon be changing hands again in Michigan.

Please watch.

The “Achievement Gap”: Banning the Language of Deficit

George W. Bush famously pushed through NCLB with his hyperbolic rally against, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”  His argument was that minority students were performing poorly, as measured by “the achievement gap,” because expectations for them were low, or “soft.”  His answer? To raise standards and test to hold schools accountable to these standards.

Time has predictably shown that Bush’s stance has only served to reinforce a racialized world dominated by Whiteness.  What standards are we asking students of color to rise to?  Standards determined by dominant culture that are reinforced through a biased testing system that rewards those who benefit from privilege, and continues to punish those who lack it.

I assume that Bush would argue that success is determined by this dominant culture, and thus, it is this culture that our students must learn to navigate in order to be what our culture deems “successful.”  (Though he probably would word it differently.)

If only it were so simple.

It seems that the game that determines the winners and losers against our standards of success is rigged.

In What’s Race Got To Do With It?, Wayne Au explains,

One of the key assumptions undergirding the use of standardized tests to measure, sort and rank students is the idea that these tests are measuring students objectively and accurately- for if the tests are objective, then they truly are assessing the individual  merits of students.  In turn the individual students who have worked the hardest and who have the most merit will rise to the top compared to their peers.

So far it kind of sounds like Bush was right, right?

Except he’s not.

Because standardized tests are neither objective nor accurate.

Au points out the flaws in the design of the SAT, “…ensuring that the test question selection process itself has a self reinforcing, built-in racial bias.”

He points out the ways in which out-of-school factors matter more in determining “achievement” than in-school factors.

He writes,

…systems of accountability built upon high-stakes, standardized testing cannot function if everyone is a “winner” for both ideological and technological reasons.  Ideologically, if everyone passed the tests there simply would be no way to justify elite status for any particular group: Every student would qualify for the most elite colleges and jobs, thereby rendering the very hierarchy of elitism obsolete. A high-stakes, standardized test that everyone passed would then function to challenge White supremacy, not maintain it.


But no worries, as long as we are talking about achievement and data and standardized anything, the ranking and competition and market driven forces will ensure that those on top stay on top.   Especially considering,

The White supremacist curriculum enforced by high-stakes testing directly and negatively impacts students of Color. Research tells us that students learn best when they can connect themselves, their identities, their lives, and their experiences to their learning.  This has proven to be true for students of Color in particular, especially those historically underserved by our school system:  Curriculum that connects to students’ cultures and identities fosters deeper connection to concepts and learning, and can lead to more academic success.  By legitimizing Whiteness through the delegitimization of non-Whiteness in curriculum and classroom environments, high-stakes tests explicitly include and exclude certain student identities in schools.  Put differently, because high-stakes tests force schools to adopt a standardized non-multicultural curriculum that structurally enforces norms of Whiteness, it ultimately silences the cultures and voices of children of Color, particularly if those voices, cultures and experiences are not contained on the tests.

And Why This Matters: Towards Banning Deficit Language

So to be clear, the ways in which we supposedly measure the “achievement gap” serves to reinforce the achievement gap.  These measures ensure that we look at students already marginalized through a  lens of “deficit.”  “They” are not measuring up to the standards that “we” have set.  Standards that are defined by, and serve to reinforce, a dominant culture determined by Whiteness.

And it is within this context that I would like to join Andre Perry in  his quest to eliminate the deficit language of “achievement gap.”

In, Why We Need to Smash the Concept of the Achievement Gap Into Tiny Pieces, Perry points out that the deficit model serves to externalize the problem of achievement.  In other words, the achievement gap is seen as a problem that rests with people of color, rather than one that rests within structures that have institutionalized racism.

Perry writes,

Common titles like Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life and Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students insidiously de-emphasize institutional responsibility for graduating men of color and as a consequence, measures of institutional accountability based on inclusion are ignored.

The authors of these and similar texts acknowledge and deconstruct institutional factors. However, we mitigate our efforts comparing black and brown weakness to supposed white strength. We undermine our cause when we try to fix black and brown boys and men of color…

The inferred white male referent in the achievement gap construct contributes to the centuries old logic that others should be compared to whites. On its face the idea of student success lets institutional factors of the hook, which have been shown to be at least half of the reason why men of color are pushed out of college. Educators shouldn’t be data driven.

We should be community driven and use data to support students.  (Emphasis added)

So what’s the first step?

To stop using any language that reinforces a perceived deficit.  Stop using any language that privileges one group vis-a-vis another.

To stop talking about a so-called “achievement gap.”

We can no longer allow language that functions to denigrate others.

Reframing the issue means that researchers must abandon antiquated constructs. Smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces.


Maybe after banning the language of deficit, we can stop blaming people and start to become community driven.

PS- Thanks to Paul Thomas for providing fodder for this thinking. Read more here.