Children and Literacy Be Damned

Education Trust, and its Midwest component, is at it again.  This Gates backed foundation just released a report pointing out that “the trajectory” of Michigan’s education system has Michigan headed to a state ranking of 44th in the country in 4th grade reading by 2030.  In an article on this report, the Detroit News fails to write where the state of Michigan is in the year 2015, but I guess that is much less newsworthy, though it would (at least seemingly accurately) show our present condition.

However, to do so would be to undermine the true purpose of these reports.

The fact of the matter is that these reports put out by Education Trust are not meant to be accurate representations of the current state of education. They are meant to raise alarms and to paint our schools as failing.  

But, before going there, let’s take a closer look at this supposed reading issue. In “Beware Grade Level Reading”and the Cult of Proficiency,” Paul Thomas points out that standardized testing necessarily limits what we mean by “reading.” Thus, the “data” that Midwest Education Trust uses for its report has already bastardized the real life experience and purposes of actual reading.

“…advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas…While all this seems quite scientific and manageable, I must call hokum—the sort of technocratic hokum that daily ruins children as readers, under-prepares children as literate and autonomous humans, and further erodes literacy as mostly testable literacy.”

And Thomas raises the necessary question too often unasked in the use of such faulty data:

Who benefits from the use of such data?

We get some hints when we look at Education Midwest’s call for “accountability.” The report reads, “If we’re going to hold our students accountable for reading by third grade, the state must hold adults accountable for doing everything they can to get them there. Leading states like Tennessee and Massachusetts have shown that a key to real reform is ensuring that teachers and principals are held accountable for their students’ academic success. This means creating an accountability and assessment system that can accurately measure student performance and growth in reading and giving schools the support – and accountability – they need to raise levels of reading performance.”

“Systems of accountability” means “systems” that are tied to high-stakes testing. And, as Thomas has pointed out, “accurate” in this case leaves much latitude. These simply represent more of the same failed policies (see the response to these in the current opt-out revolution) that necessarily remove teacher voice and professionalism from the process.

As Thomas puts it, “This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.”  That’s what is meant by “accountability,” surveillance and control.

This surveillance and control is necessary whenever change is being implemented from the top down.  And top down change just doesn’t work, for a variety of reasons, but most importantly here because the voices of actual educators, people like Phd. and reading expert Paul Thomas, are not included in the change. Actual educators who actually are professionals are ignored while those who speak for corporate interests are heard.

In her expose of Education Trust and its founder, Katy Haycock, Mercedes Schneider writes,

“She (Haycock) has become ‘the system.’ Given her continued push for top-down, test-driven pressure on states to ‘prove’ a papier-mache form of ‘equality of opportunity’ via ever-elusive, gap-closing test scores, it seems that Haycock is unaware of her role in perpetrating a failing system.

Test score worship cannot create equality of opportunity. It can only sabotage.

In that 1990 article, Haycock asks this question:

How do you design a wonderful, model curriculum and make sure all schools implement it?

The problem is with the question. The idea of ‘making’ schools implement curriculum designed by some ‘you’ is top-down.

Change absent ‘bottom-up’ investment is not genuine change and will never succeed for that reason.”

So here we have Education Trust Midwest pushing the same old, top-down, “achievement data,””accountability” system that has been tried and has failed, failed absolutely. It continues to push an agenda at the expense of children, for the benefit of corporate profit.  Education Midwest triumphs Florida as a state leading this accountability effort.  How is this working, and who does it benefit there?  In Florida, according to a telling new article, Corporate Interests Pay to Play to Shape Education Policy, Reap Profits“:

“FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50% of the state’s school accountability measure. FEE staffer Patricia Levesque wrote to a state official that she had negotiated the related language with state legislators, who were now ‘asking for the following which, the Foundation completely supports: FCAT shall be ‘at least 50%, but no more than 60%’ of a high school’s grade.’ Pearson, the company that holds the $250 million FCAT contract and sponsors FEE through its foundation, has an obvious financial stake in ensuring that FCAT continues to be at the center of Florida’s education system.” (Emphasis added)

Read the whole article, it’s important in showing who profits from these “systems of accountability.”

Again, we know the formula. Decry schools as failing, defund them, then privatize them. As Noam Chomsky puts it in regards to the commons,

“… if you can defund it, it won’t be in good shape. And there is a standard technique of privatization, namely defund what you want to privatize. Like when Thatcher wanted to defund the railroads, first thing to do is defund them, then they don’t work and people get angry and they want a change. You say okay, privatize them and then they get worse. In that case the government had to step in and rescue it.

That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

So public education funding continues to decline, and now we need evidence, as faulty as it may be, that education is failing. Thank you Education Trust. With this formula firmly established, all continues to ripen for profit.

Actual evidence is irrelevant.

Thomas makes this clear.

“Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.

The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.”

The Detroit News opinion on this report ends with these disheartening lines.

“Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder have begun some of this work, but the education establishment is still wasting time fighting over essential and inevitable reforms. Michigan is in an education free-fall, and cannot afford further delays in fixing its schools.”

I guess I am just wasting time in asking that people consider education from the perspective of evidence that is actually related to learning rather than falsity of the privilege that comes wrapped in the language of “achievement.”

I guess that corporate interests will rule, children and literacy be damned.

Silencing Dialogue: More on Turning the Deficit Gaze

In speaking about and thinking about the achievement gap, I am beginning to empathize greatly with the educators of color that Lisa Delpit quotes in her article, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,

Delpit shows the way that experiences that are beyond the range of those in the dominant culture are unable to be taken into consideration by the dominant culture.  Minority voices are thus silenced.  As a telling example, Delpit quotes a Black woman principal who is working on her Phd:

“If you try to suggest that that’s not quite the way it is, they get defensive, then you get defensive, then they’ll start reciting research. I try to give them my experiences, to explain. They just look and nod. The more I try to explain, they just look and nod,just keep looking and nodding. They don’t really hear me. Then, when it’s time for class to be over, the professor tells me to come to his office to talk more. So I go. He asks for more examples of what I’m talking about, and he looks and nods while I give them. Then he says that that’s just my experiences. It doesn’t really apply to most Black people. It becomes futile because they think they know everything about everybody. What you have to say about your life, your children, doesn’t mean anything. They don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They wear blinders and earplugs. They only want to go on research they’ve read that other White people have written. It just doesn’t make any sense to keep talking to them.”

I would suggest that any attempt to critique the dominant culture is silenced in the same way.  For instance, in Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit shows how this plays out in gender issues. “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Some men.” I want to clearly point out those driving education reform in its current iteration present at best a failed attempt to “reform” a system that, as outsiders, they have little knowledge of, yet hold much sway over because of the power they retain within the dominant culture.  In this process, educators who work with children are marginalized and silenced.

Want a clear example? How about 2 rich, white guys, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, generously offering their take on fixing education.

That quote comes back, “They don’t really hear me.”

And when the unintentional racism that Delpit exposes is combined with the privilege and power of outsiders, the effect is compounded.

That is why Jamie Utt’s recent article, 5 Things Well Meaning White Educators Should Consider if They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap  is so important.  The article shows the growth of someone who becomes aware of his own racialization as a white person and the effect of that growth. It points out the racist roots of the “achievement gap,” and shows how this deficit model of education, and of so-called “failing schools,” hurts all children.

The article also importantly shows how the deficit model of the “achievement gap” functions to hide the social context of education.

“Many of us fail to acknowledge that terms like ‘the achievement gap’ place the responsibility of change on students – and specifically poor and working class students of Color.

Yet, in my experience offering professional development to educators, most of the White teachers I work with are well-intentioned despite the damage we may be doing with these victim-blaming, deficit-oriented beliefs.

However, when at least 80% of our teachers in the United States are White and the most powerful decision makers tend to be White or are pushing White-designed models of reform, is it any wonder that we inaccurately perceive this country’s educational inequity as being the result of a student-deficit ‘achievement gap’ – a term dating back to White “reformers” of the 1960s – rather than, say, systemic oppression and marginalization?

Utt goes on to show that schools have been designed to serve those of privilege.

“And simply put, when our schools have been set up to serve Whites while excluding all but a few people of Color, it makes sense that White people are far more likely to have an advanced education.

In fact, Black men in the US actually must have a higher level of education than White men to get the same jobs, so even when those who’ve been left out of the system succeed, the deck is stacked against them!”

Utt points out the importance of  understanding the ways that, “…the broader picture where “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society ..” have contributed to what scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has labelled the “education debt.”

“When we refuse to invest properly in the education of those with the least access, we see the results in our test scores and in every other measure of injustice in our society: poverty, employment, wealth accumulation, health disparity, exposure to violence and stress, and so on.”

In the same vein, Paul Thomas writes:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words,achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

We know this. We’ve known this.

Who will listen?

Still Waiting for Democracy: When the State Takes Over From the State

If you’re paying attention to education matters in the state of Michigan, you know that Michigan’s Governor Snyder has come out with his plan for what is to become of Detroit Public Schools.  In a nutshell, it consists of creating two school systems, one that will exist only to contain and deal with existing debt, and the other to run as a debt free portfolio system  of common enrollment that will contain what is left of traditional public schools in Detroit, and charter schools.

There are some interesting quirks in this plan.  Most interesting to me is that this plan implicitly recognizes that the previous state takeover of DPS was a failure.  Governor Snyder’s response to this failure is this plan, which essentially is a state takeover of a failed state takeover.  ( Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity?)

As Detroit Data and Democracy points out, the consequences of the state takeover, originally in 1999, from the fairly elected DPS board of education have not been positive:

“…by 2002, the district was well into a cycle of decline from which it has not recovered:

  • A positive general fund balance turned negative, inducing austerity measures that impacted programming.
  • Cuts interrupted the academic progress the district had been making relative to the rest of the state.
  • With worsening academics, parents began to leave the district for charters and suburban schools.
  • The resulting enrollment decline led to a worsening financial position for the district, prompting further cuts.
  • Further cuts produced a further decline in academics, which led to more enrollment loss.”

Even the controversial Detroit Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has made It clear that the state of Michigan is responsible for current DPS debt.

“John Rakolta, chief executive of Walbridge and another co-chair of the coalition, said Detroit Public Schools operated with a surplus in 1999, before the state took over the district. Its operational deficit is now $170 million and it has about $2.1 billion in accumulated debt, according to the report.

Rakolta placed the cause of this operation deficit at the feet of state government and state policies, saying it has been accumulated under the state’s watch.” (Emphasis added)

By all metrics, the quality of Detroit Public Schools has worsened under the care of the state of Michigan.  And yet, as an explanation of the historical context given as the rationale for continuing state control (from a FAQ released by the sate), Snyder (or his communication people) says: “First, the state initially took control of Detroit Public Schools under Gov. Engler.  After a time they were returned to the local school board for operation. Unfortunately the state was forced to step in and take over again under Gov. Granholm.” The word “forced” here certainly reveals a position, as if the state was a victim of external circumstances, even when the circumstances were self-created.  History does, in fact, matter. (Rule of thumb; historicize everything.)  The logic would dictate that now, using the same wording and assumptions,  the state, unfortunately, is “forced” to step in and take over from the state.

I don’t see such honesty anywhere in Governor Snyder’s recommendation.

Democracy, in this situation, is, at best, obtuse.  Points to consider:

1.  The democratically elected DPS board currently in exile is given a role- to run, along with the current Emergency Financial Manager, (don’t ask me how this might actually work) the debt ridden portion of the district.  Worse than its previous role as an appendage to democracy, it is now relegated to a new role as the large colon of democracy, the processing function of all of the feces that is left over. Have fun with that.

2. The school board that actually gets to do the role designed for traditional school boards will be appointed, four of the members will be Gov. Snyder appointees, and three will be Mayor Mike Duggan appointees.  After a period of seven years, these state appointed school board members will be gradually replaced by a properly elected school board.

Seven more years of waiting for democracy.

The implied narrative of the whole plan continues to be that the existing context of race driven poverty is completely irrelevant, and that the mostly black people of Detroit are not worthy of democracy.

In a curious article endorsing Snyder’s plan, the Detroit Free Press wrote a very telling paragraph,

“We hoped Snyder would honor Detroiters’ right to self-govern, recognizing the importance of an elected board. But the realities of Lansing, and the need to invest state funds in the district, mean that all-local control would be politically unpalatable to the outstate lawmakers’ whose support will be required to move this plan forward. This is a compromise that, at first glance, we can live with.”

Did you get that? Detroiter’s right to self-govern is “politically unpalatable.” A compromise the Free Press suggests we live with.


Democracy has become politically unpalatable for some people in America.


Scary times.

Education: Public Good or Private Right?

Reducing the purpose of education to economic utilitarianism has dark consequences:

“… a dark cloud of political and ethical ignorance has descended on the United States. Thoughtlessness has become something that now occupies a privileged, if not celebrated, place in the political landscape and the mainstream cultural apparatuses. A new kind of infantilism now shapes daily life as adults gleefully take on the role of unthinking children and children are taught to be adults, stripped of their innocence and subject to a range of disciplinary pressures designed to cripple their ability to be imaginative.

Under such circumstances, agency devolves into a kind of anti-intellectual cretinism evident in the babble of banality produced by Fox News, celebrity culture, schools modeled after prisons and politicians who support creationism, argue against climate change and denounce almost any form of reason. The citizen now becomes a consumer; the politician, a slave to corporate money and power; and the burgeoning army of anti-public intellectuals in the mainstream media present themselves as unapologetic enemies of anything that suggests compassion, a respect for the commons and democracy itself.

Education is no longer a public good but a private right, just as critical thinking is no longer a fundamental necessity for creating an engaged and socially responsible citizenship. Neoliberalism’s disdain for the social is no longer a quote made famous by Margaret Thatcher. The public sphere is now replaced by private interests, and unbridled individualism rails against any viable notion of solidarity that might inform the vibrancy of struggle, change, and an expansion of an enlightened and democratic body politic.”

Henry Giroux, Domestic Terrorism, Youth and the Politics of Disposability

“What Would You Do?”

It’s not unusual for me to get push back from friends and others that goes something like this. “You give lots of criticism, and no answers.  What would you do?”

I hate it when that happens.  For a number of reasons.

One reason is that what these questioners are really asking is, “What is the solution that you would impose on others if given the opportunity?” The question is asked in ignorance of the fact that education is under assault because some, mainly business leaders, outside of education are imposing their solutions on others.  This question obscures issues of power.  It doesn’t recognize that any solution has to be determined with those directly affected by the solution.  In this case, those directly affected are educators, parents and children. The question  also accepts the assumption, ignorantly again, that “failing schools” and teachers are a problem, thus the need for a solution. To quote Peter Block,  “When we believe that the ‘other’ is the problem and that transformation is required of them and not of us, we become the beneficiaries of their suffering in the world.  Some of us make a living off of their deficiencies…All in the name of virtue.”  Replace “the ‘other'” with “teacher in the above quote and Block’s description offers much clarity to what is taking place under the auspices of education reform.

The main reason I hate this question is that it shows that those who ask it just aren’t paying attention. And, because of its highly politicized nature, those of us in public education greatly depend on the knowledgeable attention of those outside of it. There are lots of great programs, visions and ideas around.  Just ask educators.

This is why I greatly appreciate An Alternative to Failed Education ‘Reform,’ If We Want One.  This article explains the ways in which the state of California has resisted federal testing mandates and develop an alternative system that is actually based on teaching and learning.  Michael Fullan is credited with much of the philosophy behind the California Model.

Fullan contends American education policy since NCLB has been obsessed with “the wrong drivers.” In his studies of education systems around the world, he finds, “In the rush to move forward, leaders, especially from countries that have not been progressing, tend to choose the wrong drivers. Such ineffective drivers fundamentally miss the target.”

Four ‘culprits’ Fullan finds that ‘make matters significantly worse’ are over-emphasizing accountability and test results, promoting individual rather than group solutions, substituting technology for good instruction, and choosing fragmented strategies instead of systemic strategies to improve the system.”

Sound familiar?

In my mind this approach outlined isn’t perfect. The article uses phrases such as “high performing countries,” without explaining what “high performing” might mean. Is this in terms of test scores? Economic health? In other words, it still projects forward a language of business rather than education.  It also doesn’t address the broader and crucial context of poverty and the racialized culture that schools operate within.  (Though it does show how California addresses some issues of equity.)

Still, it rests on important foundations- that we need to move beyond “…a myopic attention to test scores to look at other kinds of results,” that educators are also solutionaries, and that looking at students as whole beings rather than test data are all important.

What are Fullan’s “right drivers”?

  1. Building capacity in schools and teachers rather than stressing accountability.
  2. Emphasizing teamwork and group quality instead of individual performance.
  3. Focusing on instructional improvement rather than technology.
  4. Enacting whole system reforms rather than piecemeal reforms.

So if someone asks, “What’s your solution?” let them know that this approach is leading in the right direction.

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.