I could spend some time giving a detailed list of all of the negatives, but I’m tired. So just trust me on this.
I do, though, want to try to summarize the most disheartening thing to me. That is, the continued narrative that makes schools both the savior of our society (read, “economy”), and therefore, as the gap between our aspirations and our reality remains, the recipient of the blame for our failures.
Unfortunately, I can continue to provide much evidence for this within my state of Michigan. More precisely, my state’s approach to “fixing” the “problem of Detroit schools.” First of all let me begin to deconstruct the narrative of this line of thinking.
This narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth that education is the means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, with exceptions that prove the rule, this simply is not true. Matt Bruenig shows,”One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility…
So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor.
Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
So let’s be clear. “Fixing schools” is not the means for students to escape poverty
In fact, “Fixing schools” can not occur without addressing poverty. The narrative of “fixing schools” addresses issues in isolation from the context they exist within. It ignores the context of poverty and racism, and imagines schools, teachers and children as isolated from the debilitating effects of these. Then, because these effects are ignored, the logic of this narrative leaves no one to blame for “poor performance” except teachers, children and their parents. In addition, the use of “achievement data” (ie., high stakes test scores) as the means of measuring the success of schools ensures that those schools most affected by poverty and structural racism are also set up for failure by these measurements. As I’ve written previously,
“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…actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.”
To summarize, this narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth of education as the answer to all societal ills, works to effectively ignore the conditions of poverty of racism while reifying the conditions of poverty and racism, blames schools, teachers, children and parents for the failure, and finally, as a trump card of the double bind, uses this blame as justification for disinvesting in public education.
It’s truly twisted, and leaves me tired and despairing at the end of this year.
This narrative appears subtly. And it mostly appears in what is not said. Here’s a brief example from the Detroit Free Press’s lauding of the new ESSA act:
“The new law maintains a focus on making schools accountable for the performance of poor, minority, special education and limited English speaking students. That’ll be key in a state like Michigan, which ranks as among the worst states in the U.S. for the performance of African-American students on a rigorous national exam. There are also troubling, large gaps in performance between minority students and white students on the state’s exam.” (Emphasis added)
Note that there is no mention of the effect of poverty, merely the mention of individual, “poor, minority…students.” This obscures the effect of the conditions of poverty while individualizing these conditions. We are left with a fantasy of individuals who can “be saved” from poverty, rather than on poverty as a condition itself that is addressable. It also reinforces the measurement of tests that serve to reify racism, without mentioning racism as a cause of these “large gaps.”
And who is left accountable for the ills of society? Schools.
We won’t change schools until we address the structures that stratify according to race and class. It’s simple. And it’s difficult. But to put our hope in anything else is a waste of time.
“To critique education as an institution is, then, to critique the nation itself. To reckon with the longstanding race, class and gender stratification that is, in part, delivered by schools is to acknowledge that schools are deeply connected to the bidding of a larger national structure, put in place hundreds of years ago and reshaped into subvariants throughout history.”
Sure, it’s a big task. But let’s not waste any more time.
My home state of Michigan has a law that allows an Emergency Manager to be put in place. This Emergency Manager has dictatorial control. Decisions that were previously made by a democratically elected city council or school board are given over to an appointee of the governor.
If you are a citizen of a country that purports itself to be a democracy, you may have some obvious concerns about this.
If you are a fan of human rights, there are even more.
One of the decisions that the Emergency Manager of Flint has made is to end its contract with Detroit Water and Sewage Department and instead pump water from the local and polluted Flint River for its residents. The good news is that it saves some money. The bad news is that this move is poisoning the residents of Flint.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, analyzed blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process, and found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels has increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead has doubled.”
And how much lead is safe in children?
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no safe blood-lead level for children. Lead poisoning causes a host of developmental and behavioral problems in exposed children. It is irreversible.” (Emphasis added)
Which, to me, calls forward a seemingly obvious question: What is more important, economic efficiency or human lives?
I guess we know where the Flint Emergency Manager and Michigan governor stand, because they don’t quite seem to be accepting the data.
“Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci told the Free Press on Thursday that the increase was ‘seasonal and not related to the water supply.'”
“Despite the state’s efforts to discredit the Hurley data, the state’s own data show that there are a higher percentage of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood after the switch.” (Emphasis added)
So, any level of lead in the blood of a human is unsafe, and yet, the state is arguing that the increase in lead in the bodies of children in Flint is seasonal, as if:
1. Such an increase can be rationalized.
2. The state and its governor can wash its hands of this particular situation.
And what does all of this have to do with education reform?
Remember, the way that our current crop of top down, data driven education reformers imagine education is via the vehicle of wishful thinking that assumes that teachers and students are alienated individuals who work in isolation from social systems. This logic thus suggests these teachers and students are responsible for their own success and failure. The way to reform is then to reward the successes of these individuals, and to punish their failures. Failure leads to school closures, which leads to privatization (and its corollary of profit-making for some) often in the form of quasi-public, directly for-profit charters. Distractions offered by the social context that they work within, such as poverty or the poisoning of their water sources, are irrelevant because responsibility for success and failure lies completely within the control of the students and teachers involved.
So, forgive my simplification, but the formula goes; low test scores leads to profit for some.
Now, if an entirely evil person were to develop a plan that would ensure low test scores, thereby ripening the potential for profit, what might this person do? Maybe slip something into the children’s water source to decrease their cognitive ability? This would ensure low test scores, create “school failure,” and allow for all of the profit-making such school failure leads to. (Because of the underlying assumptions explained above, it would also wonderfully and magically point all blame to the victims themselves.)
Can you spell F…l…i…n…t?
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Governor Snyder is an evil person with an evil plan. I do not pretend to know his intentions.
However, his intentions are irrelevant to the people who are suffering under his policies. What is relevant is the effect that his policies are having on communities. What is relevant is how his policies actually function. And the effect of his policies is exactly what is spelled out above. If his intentions include helping and supporting people, then it seems that he would begin to take responsibility for the damage his polices are having.
It seems he would take responsibility for the imposing autocratic decision-making processes where once there was the accountability offered by democracy.
It seems he would take responsibility for the dismantling of our schools, and for the poisoning of our children.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to see the connections between water and schooling- between the suffering of our children and the “failure” of our schools. We have to stop seeing poverty, ecological health, mental health and education as separate categories and start to understand that there is truly one issue that works across categories: Exploitation for the sake of profit.
This is what we must resist in all of the forms we find it.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“…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.”
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.
Any attempt to rank schools that factors in the concern of poverty must be better than most, right?
I guess so, if you accept that the competitive, market driven model of ranking schools is acceptable, or that rankings based on achievement data is in any way useful.
And if you accept that poverty can be considered without also considering the ways in which race functions in our society and schools.
And if you accept that the real way to change children’s education is by addressing in-school factors while avoiding the impact of out-of-school factors.
I, on the other hand, accept none of these.
Allow me to explain.
But before doing so, let me applaud this attempt by the Bridge. I think it is a genuine dive into the issue of poverty. At least they accept that poverty has an impact on education. However, by accepting the myths I outline below, Bridge continues that failed narrative of “failing schools,” which hurts all of us, especially our kids, by misdirecting good intentions.
Myth 1- standardized tests measure learning.
In determining its rankings, Bridge makes the fundamental assumption that test scores measure learning. They don’t. Bridge recognizes that, “To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors.” Yes, there is a strong correlation of “achievement” to socio-economic status. However, the problem goes even deeper. As just a cursory look at testing, for example, if we understand that learning is a function of growth, of some kind of difference in a student’s understanding between time A and time B, these tests scores, as they are static, don’t measure learning. They are a tool that freeze frames a fluid process and focuses on where a student “is” as opposed to any growth. As a whole, we greatly confuse “achievement” with “learning.” And all too often, in these days of so-called ed reform, achievement simply means “ability to perform well on tests that measure superficial knowledge.”
Alfie Kohn, as usual, gets to the root of the matter when he writes:
“Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding. Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted to students (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command.”
Standardized test, like the ones that Bridge uses for its comparative data, do not necessarily measure the increase of anything of value that can be singularly recognized as caused by a student’s school experience. Instead, this data simply is a static representation of regurgitated information on the part of students. It mistakes correlation with causation, and the correlation is too often to regurgitated, superficial information. If regurgitated information is important and what we want in our children’s school experience, then tests work well in their purported task. If we’re after something more, then I urge us to consider Diane Ravitch’s caution:
“We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.”
But for now, let’s just ignore the meaninglessness of wasting so much time and energy on pretending that these tests somehow relate to learning so we can get to myth #2.
Myth 2- poverty can be taken into consideration without factoring race into the equation.
The fact of the matter is that poverty functions differently according to race. To put it another way, poor white people still have the privilege of being white. This is not to deny the difficulty of their poverty. It is merely to say that for people who are poor and black, poverty is compounded by race. Educator Paul Gorski writes,
“What we see–what I see–is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what’s happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US–law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one–protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.” (Please see Gorski’s invaluable,Complicating White Privilege.)
And because this is irrefutable, considering poverty without considering how it is affected by race gives only a partial picture. We can’t just talk about poverty, as Bridge does, without considering the impact that race has on how poverty is experienced. We can’t justifiably consider two differing conditions of poverty and call them equal in these comparisons.
You might be wondering, just how does poverty function differently according to race? For one way, see Gorski above.
For another, we have to recognize that because of our history of race in this country, poor African-Americans are much more likely to experience poverty in a way that is encapsulated by race. That is, the neighbors of poor blacks are very likely to also be poor and black. The schools that their children attend are very likely to have high rates of children who are also poor and black. Writing about this disparity in Down and Out, Jamelle Bouie points out, “A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation affirmed this fact. According to the foundation, only 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 20 percent, compared to a national average of 74 percent. Of course, the other way to say this is that 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of greater than 20 percent.”
What does this mean?
“Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime.”
Understanding how poverty functions differently for blacks and whites is important, yet it is completely unaddressed by The Bridge.
It’s as if race just doesn’t matter.
As if only the variable of poverty matters.
And this means that as a whole, predominately poor black schools will be rated below predominately poor white schools, especially when comparisons only consider the factor of poverty to the exclusion of race. (Of course there will be predictable exceptions , which by their exception prove the rule. And this rule obscures other factors that are bound up within the charter school movement.) And if poverty is the only factor, then we are left reaching for explanations that the methodology doesn’t allow for.
Structural racism is obscured.
Myth 3- the way to change outcomes is to address school quality while ignoring out-of-school factors.
Now, let me start by being crystal clear. Teachers matter, and in-school factors make a difference. Got it. I’ve staked my career on the fact that as an educator, I matter.
The problem is, all of the evidence shows that out of school factors matter more.
“Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed.”
See. Fundamentally, Berliner and Bridge agree that poverty impacts education. Yet, Bridge’s report manages to consider the out-of-scho0l factor of poverty as a means of directing attention back to factors within schools. It’s a magical trick of brilliant contortion.
What we all really need to consider is the question of, where do we put our energy? Into addressing in-school factors, where control is very difficult to quantify and thus know the effects of? Or in addressing out of school factors, which clearly would have an impact, though are difficult politically to make happen? Clearly, both are important. And yet the function of the current ed reform movement, whose narrative of testing Bridge is buying into, misuse in-school factors (i.e., “achievement data) is to direct attention away from out-of-school structural factors, which have a greater impact.
Berliner suggest that, “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.”
To be fair, Bridge seems to recognize this. In their statement that explains their methodology includes, under the category of “disadvantages” of the methodology, “Disadvantages: It includes any disadvantages of the standardized tests and does not incorporate other factors that can affect performance, such as cultural differences, pre–K education, and neighborhood factors.” ( )
Those seem like fairly significant disadvantages. And they are the same disadvantages inherent in any methodology that compares and ranks schools using achievement data.
Which of course, begs the question, why?
Why compare using standardized tests when these disadvantages are recognized?
And why, if we agree that poverty impacts education, write a story that looks at how to raise test scores that are themselves fundamentally highly questionable when we could make it all bit easier by considering how we can actually address poverty (and race) directly?
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.”
“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.
“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?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about schools, about language’s culture replicating function*, and about the “achievement ethic,” a phrase which reinforces the status seeking, grade grubbing, high stakes test driven culture that those of us who work closely with students have come to despise. And I’ve been thinking about the ways that our broader culture reinforces these notions. (See how, for instance, education is nestled dependently within the context of economics here.)
Do you see any parallels between the achievement ethic, and especially its basis as the foundation of the push for market based school reform, and Verhaege’s description of the effects of neoliberalism on our lives?
“A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.” (emphasis added)
The individual striving for status and freedom is a never-ending upward arc as measured by grades, test scores, college acceptance and then income.
“Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, ‘make’ something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?” (emphasis added)
Because this achievement is the individualistic quest for freedom, this arc moves away from the necessary constraints of community and belonging. Our notion of achievement is a competitive (i.e., over and against others) quest towards status, against community.
“There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity.” (emphasis added)
The achievement ethic really is an impossible attempt to rise above the unavoidable constraints of community. Like the myth of Icarus, our economy and our schools ask us to rise above the constraints of being human, of thus avoiding (or “freeing” us from) the issues and concerns that come with actually residing with others on this earth.
Our measures of a highly cheapened form of success are turning us, and our children, into psychopaths.
“The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”
(*For more on how language replicates and creates culture, see the important work of Chet Bowers:
I was fortunate enough to come across The School as a Community of Engaged Learners, by Penelope Eckert, Shelley Goldman, and Etienne Wenger of Stanford’s Institute for Research and Learning. Unfortunately, the IRL closed in 2000, but this document remains as timely as ever. It does so because it understands learning as a practice that takes place within a social context, and imagines learning as so much more than the simple acquisition of knowledge that can be simply tested. These authors understand that the damaging premise of testing as the leverage for change has co-opted the school reform movement and left students and teachers alienated and laboring under a false identity determined by “achievement.”
School is necessarily a place of coming to understand who we are because our identity is developed through connection to others. It’s crucial to understand that the quality of these connections is the basis for all learning because our identity is the foundation for what we learn. Identity comes as a result of who and what we belong to. We learn from those in a community that we see ourselves a part of. (Frank Smith calls these connections of belonging “learners clubs.”) We have the opportunity to work with this necessary function of identity development so that it becomes a positive force connected to learning as belonging for the benefit of all, or to leave it as an aside so that students are left alone to develop alienated, truncated identities (thus truncating their learning) structured from a competition that is based upon superficial data, making some “winners,” and many more “losers.”
From the document:
“In fact, learning becomes problematic in school to the extent that the school focuses on learning as an endeavor in itself, rather than as a means to building social relations and engaging in meaningful activity. No amount of change in schools will produce significant results unless the nature of school as a social entity is taken seriously. No amount of clever delivery of subject matter will capture the imaginations and energies of students who feel that their opportunities for social development lie elsewhere…
Currently, the only legitimate opportunity for developing identities around learning in the classroom is along a linear scale of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ student, based on the standardized performance of standardized tasks. This guarantees that the major social dynamics motivating learning will be a competition among peers and the eagerness to please one’s elders. Kids, like their elders, seek participation in communities that afford complex forms of membership and creative identities. In our traditional schools, the greatest opportunity for creative social activity is in resistance or ‘subversive behavior: disruption, cheating, tardiness, apathy, violence, drugs, self destruction.” (Emphasis added)
High stakes testing and standardization completely ignore the social function necessary for learning. “Data,” “accountability,” and “rigor,” all ignore the understanding that our identity is not formed separately from our communities of belonging. Such language represents automatized, conscripted versions of community, and therefore learning, and as such are completely powerless to “produce significant results.” The corporatist approach to education reform is faulty at its core precisely because it imagines learning all too simplistically as the individualized, privatized acquisition of bits of knowledge. It’s an impoverished, alienating view of schooling because it is an impoverished, alienated way of imagining what it means to be human.