Monthly Archives: July 2013

Hope Matters

One of the basic, hidden problems of the high-stakes approach to education reform, and its framing of ‘rigor,’ is that it views students merely as data points, rather than recognizing their multi-dimensionality as humans, most foundationally their emotional engagement in school and attitudes toward learning.

Ron Newell puts it this way:

“The point we tried to make to school personnel is that when you pay more attention to relationships and relevance, rigor will be a by-product. When you only pay attention to rigor, in effect teach more, teach harder, make students work harder, etc., autonomy, belongingness, mastery goal orientation and engagement suffer. Eventually, hope, a measure of psychological health, is also eroded.” (emphasis added) Dr. Ron Newell in a report to the Blandin Foundation

Those that start with ‘rigor’ (which essentially has become code for an emphasis on measuring via testing) as a lever for educational reform are wasting their time. Student learning (let’s use this phrase rather than rigor), as determined by not only content knowledge, but skills, and most importantly, dispositions, comes naturally when kids feel they belong, and see the relevance of their learning. In fact, starting with rigor is at the expense of these foundational characteristics of learning, and of the hope of the students involved. And this is where our current approach to ed reform goes way wrong; a short-term, one-dimensional focus on content (and a definition of rigor limited to content difficulty, then measured via testing) at the long-term expense of students’ agency.

On Overcoming the Idealistic Delusion That We Still Live in a Democracy

There is a fantastic new web-site that is collecting teachers’ letters written to the most powerful man in education.  The letters share teachers’ experiences under this powerful man’s influence.  They are heartfelt and moving, and they expose the impact of data driven corporate education reform on the teachers and students who live with it daily.  Please take some time to read them.

Now, you may wonder, who is this most powerful man who these teachers choose to share their stories with?  In a democracy that has control of its publicly held commons, you may think it is a person who is elected and accountable to the public.  And, following our long-held tradition of pushing democratically held institutions down to the lowest common denominator for the purpose of the greatest control and accountability, you may think these letters are written to he president of the local school board.  It’s pretty to think so.  How about a local state representative, or state governor?  Sorry, not even close.  How about the President of the United States, the highest office in our so-called democracy?  Wrong still.  Then it must be that president’s own appointed Secretary of Education?  Nope.

The most powerful man in forming education policy in the United States is actually a private citizen who has no accountability whatsoever to the public.  The letters are written to Bill Gates.

And, you may wonder, how did this single private citizen acquire more power in educational policy than the rest of us, including all of the voiceless teachers and students left out of the process?

The answer is fairly complex, so let me break it down into two parts for you minions of our corporatocracy:

1.  Bill Gates has a shit-ton of money.

2.  And you don’t.

And how does this money work in the good old US of A?  Check this article which exposes the flow of corporate and foundation money and its translation into actual legislation via the American Legislative Exchange Council.  (Duly note the role of the Gates Foundation.)

So what’s a poor minion left to do?

Study up on the Citizens United ruling.

If you pray, pray for what’s left of our democracy.

Educate everyone you can on the ways corporate money is impacting all of our children.

And for the  biggest impact, write to Bill Gates.

A Plea To Wake Up: Making Connections

Tim Wise recently wrote an essay, Whiteness, NSA Spying, and the Irony of Racial Privilege, in which he argued that, though highly condemnable, the revelation of the NSA spying on ordinary citizens should really not be much of a surprise to those paying attention.

“The idea that with this NSA program there has been some unique blow struck against democracy, and that now our liberties are in jeopardy is the kind of thing one can only believe if one has had the luxury of thinking they were living in such a place, and were in possession of such shiny baubles to begin with. And this is, to be sure, a luxury enjoyed by painfully few folks of color, Muslims in a post-9/11 America, or poor people of any color. For the first, they have long known that their freedom was directly constrained by racial discrimination, in housing, the justice system and the job market; for the second, profiling and suspicion have circumscribed the boundaries of their liberties unceasingly for the past twelve years; and for the latter, freedom and democracy have been mostly an illusion, limited by economic privation in a class system that affords less opportunity for mobility than fifty years ago, and less than most other nations with which we like to compare ourselves.”

His argument is that there should be no shock when we discover that the circumscription of the boundaries of freedom that has always been experienced by the underprivileged also comes eventually to those of privilege.

Applying his argument to education, we should not be surprised when the deep effects of corporate education reform movement come to all of us.

So far this movement has decimated geographies of class and color.  Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have closed schools at an alarming rate, disproportionately affecting black and low-income students.  It is clear that a history of structural racism and classism has made these geographies ripe for profit.  Michigan is only one state that continues to disinvest in the common good with a neoliberal agenda run amuck.  Wisconsin continues to fight its assault on public education.  (These links are only from the past 2 months.)  Etc., etc., etc.  Those paying attention have been warning of this for some time.

And this is now coming to all areas, rich, poor, and all colors.  I don’t believe that the corporate reformers are necessarily racists and classist, although they have taken advantage of these unjust systems for their own gain.  I do believe they are interested in increasing their profit through privatizing the common good, and this includes decreasing access to “government schools.”  Their tool is a plan of simply casting doubt on the ability of public schools to educate students through a formula of increasing rigor, measuring that increased rigor via high stakes testing, calling them a failure as a result of increasing cut scores until most schools fail, and then using this ‘failure’ as an excuse to defund and/or to turn over to corporate operated charter schools.  Combine this with the ramping up of common core assessments, a blame the teacher, “no excuses” mentality, an artificially imposed funding crisis, and bingo, the foundation of public education is fatally eroded.

Note that this erosion is no longer limited to those of certain geographies, color or class.  Wise points out the spread of the loss of freedom that those marginalized have always experienced.  This is part of a larger pattern.  Suburban public schools are now beginning to undergo the same damage that those in marginalized public schools have been experiencing for years.

It’s time to wake up.  And waking up doesn’t mean only fighting for our suburban schools of privilege, it means recognizing and fighting for all of our communities.  It means acting in recognition that we are all inter-connected, and that the common good is important to all of us.

Education Reform; Therapeutic or Prophetic?

In religious circles there is distinction made between therapeutic approaches to religion, and prophetic approaches. This same distinction can be made in regards to approaches to education reform, and, as we shall see, it’s an important distinction to make. (Because this is a blog about education, this is not the place to go into how this plays out in religion. If you are interested, see here for more.)

A therapeutic approach is one that focuses on helping an individual operate more effectively within a given system, or that looks for ways for that given system to operate more effectively. It helps the individual develop skills or attitudes that will help them to become more successful, happier, or ‘better’ at the job. It looks for ways to support the system itself in running more productively. It has an important role to play and shouldn’t be discounted. When questions are asked that focus on the individual, or on making a given system more effective, the questions are coming from a therapeutic frame: What skills do people need in the 21st century? How do we help teachers to become more effective? How can we tweak “this” to do it better? These are questions that are therapeutic in their orientation. That is, they are looking for ways to help individuals adjust to the parameters of the system, or looking to make the system as effective and efficient as possible.

The problem with this is when it only focuses on individuals within the system, or on improving the system, while never questioning the basis of the system itself. Too often this approach takes the system as an unquestionable given. The implication is that the only alternative is to accept the system and adjust accordingly. It implies a political quietism that doesn’t allow the individual to see connections between his/her health and welfare, and the health and welfare of everybody else. It doesn’t in itself allow for seeing the necessary interdependence of all. And an approach that focuses on individual improvement, or system improvement. without questioning the hidden assumptions of the broader system allows for nefarious forces to work unimpeded. As the philosopher/therapist James Hillman poignantly wrote in We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy- And the World’s Getting Worse, limiting ourselves to the therapeutic allows the rest of the world to move without us. As citizens with a role to play in a functioning democracy, this is not an option.

James hillman

A prophetic approach, on the other hand, calls into question the system itself. It asks questions of justice and power: Why are some groups “successful” and others are not? Who benefits from the system, and who is marginalized? It questions the functional morality of the system. It looks at the health of the whole, not only individuals within the whole. It recognizes that as educators we are necessarily public in the service of the common good, that we are also necessarily political, and that we have to contend in this arena.

In attempt to make this more concrete, allow me to address one specific example; the way in which the common core controversy is being played out. Some argue, from a therapeutic perspective, that the common core standards in and of themselves are positive and, given that we are seemingly stuck with standards, these certainly represent a step forward. Note that the system that the common core is offered within is not questioned- the argument sticks to the effectiveness of the common core standards themselves within the given system.

However, when we take a prophetic approach that looks holistically at the standards and how they connect to other systems of power, the effectiveness of the common core standards themselves is not as important as analyzing how they will function as a part of the broader, contended arena of what it means to have a system of public education. We recognize that standardization has a pattern of being linked to high stakes tests as a means of holding teachers “accountable” to teaching them. Resulting test scores have a pattern of being used to criticize public schools, and, alternatively, when schools do score well, the standards are raised in the name of the “rigor.” An impossible cycle of useless and harmful competition is reinforced, and, in our culture of market fundamentalism, students and teachers are hurt. “Why not punish them?” the logic goes, “teachers aren’t effective within this ‘given’ system according to the measures that are in place.” The prophetic approach may or may not accept the contained argument of those proponents of the common core who argue from a therapeutic perspective, but it sees that the common core simply sets up another cycle of unfair criticism of public education and the disinvestment that follows.

So now what? How can we take the best of the therapeutic approach while keeping it connected to the prophetic? What’s an educator to do?

Start by connecting your personal frustrations to all of the things that are happening around you. Start thinking deeply from the concrete context you work in daily and connect your experience to the experiences of your colleagues, of your students, of parents in the district. Look at issues of power- who has power in your context? Who has power in the broader fight for control over public education? Who doesn’t have power? How did this come to be? Read Paul Thomas, Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody, Chris Thinnes and Ken Bernstein. (There are more. I’m sure I’m missing some great ones, but this is a good start.) Be active on Twitter. (Be sure to follow @symphily.) Join the Bad Ass Teacher Organization. (And say that aloud, it’s really empowering.)

Above all, share your voice, don’t allow it to be silenced. It matters. Without all of our voices, we all lose.

(Image from