Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Lynchpin For This System

As part of my life-long (and mostly losing) battle against the misuse of test data (and anything referred to in education by the language of “achievement”) I offer this incredibly succinct and accurate quote by the Jersey Jazzman and encourage you to slip it into all of your conversations, educational and other.

“Standardized tests don’t measure learning so much as they rank and order children according to a social construction that is based on the notion that we must have winners and losers in our society.” 

I’ve written about this before (see  here, here and here) and probably will again. It’s important to keep saying as long as achievement data is used comparatively and as a weapon against “failing schools” and “bad teachers.” Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, achievement data doesn’t measure learning. It does, however, serve as an accurate measure of socioeconomic status. Thus, achievement data is simply a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.  As such, those who present any argument for school reform that is fundamentally based on achievement data are actually arguing for maintaining our society’s status quo. They are presenting an argument that functions to benefit the privileged at the expense of the already marginalized.

The Jazzman continues:

“Ranking and sorting students does nothing to address this core problem in today’s America. All it does is ratchet up the pressure on children, whose parents understand that a life without a college degree increasingly means a life of misery. It’s become clear to many (even if they don’t articulate it in the same way I am doing here) that the standardized test is the lynchpin for this system. And it’s also become clear that the defenders of the real status quo refuse to acknowledge the truth about this state of affairs..

And maybe that’s why people are getting fed up with standardized tests: they are a distraction that keeps us from doing what really needs to be done.

Well said.

Same As It Ever Was: Achievement Data and the Language of Opportunity

Consider Paul Verhaeghe’s discussion of neoliberalism, social Darwinism and the fallacy of meritocracy.  (From  Verhaeghe’s excellent What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market Based Society):

“The analogy is plain to see: just like social Darwinism, neo-liberal meritocracy is aimed at ‘survival of the fittest’. whereby the best get precedence and the rest are selectively removed…Crucially, social Darwinism also discounted such factors as upbringing, social class, and, more broadly, environmental influences. Only factors determined by heredity were deemed important.  If you replace genes with talent, the similarity is clear: it’s all down to the individual; effort and innate characteristics will allow him or her to succeed.” (Emphasis added.)

The current zeitgeist of market fundamentalism erases all factors outside of the individual, which now makes it safe for the right to focus so much on the language of opportunity. (E.g., Michigan Governor Snyder’s recent State of the State’s  theme of “A River of Opportunity.”) I don’t think anyone is going to argue against opportunity, but it’s important to understand how it is used and what it can hide. Opportunity is a word that faces forward into the future. Opportunity says that we all need the same options as we progress.  The problem with this is it erases the past, as if the starting point for this opportunity is equal.  And if we are focusing on the individual- if we take away the context that each individual exists within as if this context is irrelevant- then opportunity sounds great.  If two people of equal social capital start at the same point, then they both have the same opportunity for success.  Right?  (If you haven’t yet, please read Ira Socol’s relevant thoughts on how this plays out in education via the language of “grit.”)

Of course,  context can’t be erased.  If we don’t consider how context and social conditions affect the starting line for opportunity, then we simply propagate the privilege of those who already have a head start.  If we only consider opportunity from the standpoint of the individual, then we can continue to blame individuals for their poverty, for their lack of success.

Ponder the case of Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan, who has taken on the mantle of being a champion for the poor and a brand new promoter of opportunity.  What does that look like in terms of actual policy recommendations?

“On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net…Helping the poor by cutting the programs they rely on is, to say the least, a risky theory of uplift. It’s easier to see what Ryan’s plan does to impede sufficiency of opportunity than to spread it…This is why it’s wise to keep debates about principle grounded in actual policies. Changing principles requires little more than changing rhetoric. It’s the policy where you can see if anything is actually different.” (From No One Really Believes in Equality of Opportunity.)

In other words, in spite of the rhetoric, and in the words of the great educational philosopher David Byrne, it’s the same as it ever was.

Verhaeghe provides exactly the lens needed in order to understand how this is analogous to the way “achievement data” functions.  Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, it simply is a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.

Verhaeghe continues:

“This analogy exposes the weak spot in the reasoning.  Social Darwinism and neo-liberal meritocracy create the impression that they favour the individual who is naturally the best. He or she would have made it anyway; we are just giving nature a helping hand to speed the ‘fittest’ up the ladder.  But the reality is somewhat different. Both social Darwinists and meritocratists themselves determine who is the ‘fittest’ and, crucially, how that is to be measured.  In practice, they create an increasingly narrow version of reality, while claiming that they promote ‘natural’ winners.  They then preserve that ‘reality’ by systematically favouring those winners, thus keeping them on top.  The fact that they remain there is advanced to prove the validity of this approach.

…on the basis of figures, decisions are made over people’s heads. And ultimately, those figures create the reality on which they are supposedly based.” (Emphasis added)

Achievement data measures a reality as a means of recreating it. Whose opportunity is that?


Ed Reform and the Return of Individualism

In the logic of the ed reform, A + B= C, where:

A.  All is seen from the frame of the individual only and leaves out the importance of social capital.

B. Ed reform then layers on the “deficit perspective” to its frame. In a highly simplified nutshell, this deficit layer is competitive and colonizing in that it assumes that: (1)  I am excellent. (2) Therefore any differences between us are deficits on your part.

C. Thus, those who are privileged by the dominant frame continue to maintain the status quo and their privilege, in spite of all protestations, by blaming others for “faults” that are out of their control (such as conditions of poverty and institutional racism), and using this blame of the marginalized as a means, consciously or not, of maintaining the dominance of privilege. If “other” individuals are in  control of their destiny, it is their problem that they are not “successful,” not mine. If they just can improve (by becoming like me- I did it, can’t they?) then they can be successful (like me).

What does this lead to?

A frame that says the problem with education lies with “failing schools,” schools are filled with “failing teachers,” and with students who are products of a “tailspin of culture.” Or, as Curt Dudley-Marling words it in, “Return of the Deficit”:

“A deficit gaze that pathologizes individuals, families, and communities is instantiated in pedagogical practices and dispositions that are primarily responsible for disproportionate levels of failure among poor and minority populations.” In other words, this deficit gaze actually creates the failure it supposedly is working to eliminate.

That is the deficit model in a nutshell.  A model that projects failure on to others, blaming the victim while absolving a privileged perspective from any responsibility. It’s a model that privatizes achievement by reinforcing a culture of status and achievement where those who start ahead stay ahead, and socializing losses by avoiding all responsibility for “losers.” (See Stiglitz quote below)

You know this frame of individualism/deficit is working when you see or hear words such as “achievement,” “data,” “accountability,” “rigor,” etc.  Or when you read virtually any article on education in our mainstream, so-called “free press.”

Paul Thomas, in his excellent post, “Parents and Language: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” quotes Pierre Bourdieu, who writes:

” I’m thinking of what has been called the ‘return of individualism,’ a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to blame the victim,who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)” (Emphasis added)

“The return of individualism” is contradictory to the evidence, which shows, as Thomas points out in “Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact,”  that “class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort.”

Thomas quotes Matt Di Carlo:

“… in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms.” (Emphasis added)

Wouldn’t it be nice if evidence mattered?

In other words, it is not the individual, or his/her habits, level of “grit,” or his/her anything that matters most in determining school success. Rather it is the “social context” that person exists within.  It is the nexus of interdependent relationships that provide the context for this person’s life outside of school that is most important. So policy which focuses only on factors that occur within the school represents a huge misdiagnosis of the problem.

The problem isn’t school.  The problem is poverty. The problem is the legacy of race and how it ties into poverty.  The problem is a system of social dominance that privileges some while oppressing others.

I guess, even though it’s a completely ineffective waste of time, it’s much easier to just talk about school.

What does this mean for us?

It does not mean that individual choices don’t make a difference.  As an educator, I talk with my students all of the time about the things that are in their control. About the choices that they make that have an impact on their lives. These things are important.  And they require the support of competent people within a context of care.  This care is my job as an educator. Your job as a parent. Our job as community members.

And I also talk to my students about the context of their lives, the things that are not so much in their direct control. About how issues of race and class affect them.  I want them to be able to name these things, to point to the relationships between who they have been, who they are becoming, and the forces of life that help shape them.It is necessary for them to able to this so that they don’t internalize the blame for things they can’t control. I don’t want them to internalize the projections of others.  I do want them to acquire agency in their lives. There is a power that comes in naming these forces, a freedom that comes with recognizing constraints, which is very different from accepting constraints.

Paul Gorski articulates this so eloquently when he writes,

“…experience has taught me that our biggest barrier when it comes to us as educators helping to create the change required to ensure more equitable educational opportunity for low-income students is the way that we, in education, tend to see problems as fundamentally practical, solvable with the next best instructional framework or bit of curricula or assessment paradigm. The trouble is that we tend to implement these strategies and initiatives without changing the biased ideologies that have helped sustain the problems we’re trying to solve. The first ideological shift is from a deficit view (or a grit view, which is a kind of deficit view) to a structural view. Again, even if I, as an individual educator, can’t change the structural stuff, I will not be the most effective educator I can be for low-income students if I don’t understand the realities they’re facing and how those realities are impacting the structure and practice of education. Looking through the lens of race, a racially biased teacher, however well-intentioned, is not going to be more effective as a teacher if she incorporates a few practical strategies for helping students of color learn unless she also is willing to become more racially just in her own thinking. Ideology, beliefs, world view drive every aspect of practice.” (Emphasis added)

The first task in the daily work the educator is recognize the limitations of the deficit gaze. Because this requires a context of care, a personal knowledge that can not be abstracted from lived context and then “scaled up,” this is not the job of policy. The choices we make as a community that are reflected in policy absolutely matter. But policy can not do the job of caring. Only the known human beings involved in our lives can have this effect.  It is a necessary and tragic limitation of policy.

So then, what is the job of policy if it can not act from this place of personal care?

The job of policy is to start the structural shift.

We can stop enacting policy that functions to blame people for things that are outside of their control. Instead, we can develop policy that addresses the systemic concerns that are broader than the personalized context of care. We can create  policy which addresses our growing inequality, that works  to alleviate poverty. We can work with consideration of the historical legacy that race continues to have in our country. Because these issues of poverty and race are the ones that most affect our students, these are the fundamental policy issues that need to be addressed in order to create positive and lasting change.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz  writes“Our current brand of capitalism is an ersatz capitalism. For proof of this go back to our response to the Great Recession, where we socialized losses, even as we privatized gains. …

If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics.”

You can see the individualist frame that Stiglitz unveils, and, as he points out, our policy choices do make a difference.  We need to stop enacting policy that serves to socialize losses and privatize gains.

As Thomas writes elsewhere in naming the ed reform movement’s obscuring of social forces the “American Hustle,” “We must act, we must do something directly about inequity while naming poverty, racism, and sexism as very real and not merely as token political discourse in order to mask those realities.”