Tag Archives: Paul Thomas

The Blame for Our Failures

It’s been another miserable year for educators.

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.

It’s crazy.

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.

MLK Poverty

I’ve recently discovered the work of Lisa Patel. (Read it.) She succinctly summarizes:

“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.

Please read:

Education as the Great Equalizer Deforming Myth. Not Reality, Paul Thomas

Photo from voicesofdetroit.net

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?

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.”



Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

If we were really honest with ourselves, and we’re not, we would be forced to come to the conclusion that the so-called “achievement gap” isn’t going anywhere soon.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not giving up.  I will continue to work, educate, learn and do all I can to make this gap go away.

It’s just that I continue to despair at the degree of denial we are operating within.

Let me explain directly.

The “achievement gap” is a frame created and maintained by white dominant culture.  This frame functions to externalize the problem.  The lack of “achievement”  within this frame, is a problem with minorities who are affected by it, and all efforts are therefore directed to changing minorities, those who own the problem.  (See here for more of my concerns with the language of “achievement”.)

See how nifty that works?  The problem is “those” people.

In addition to externalizing the blame, the frame of the achievement gap also  individualizes the blame.  If we just change “those people” we can solve the problem.  This logic of this as a “people problem,” leads to the tired, failed rhetoric such as “the number one factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher.”  Even though, as scholar Elias Isquith says, “… pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.”  

Again, don’t get me wrong, the frame has done some good.  The data it provides is so incontrovertible that we are no longer able to deny that there is a problem.

It’s just that language of “achievement gap” obscures what the problem is.  It’s not a people problem.

The problem is that we have an equity gap.  Our white dominant, competitive culture that is oriented around “achievement” simply works in ways that privileges some at the expense of others. And, if we were honest, we would recognize that you can’t talk about equity without including race. Yes, poverty is a huge problem.  But all too often speaking about poverty becomes an excuse for not talking about race.  And race and poverty are all too often tied up with each other.

By way of quick example, my state of Michigan has created the Education Achievement Authority as a state run district to “turn around” the state’s lowest performing schools.  It’s a technical solution to this people problem of underachievement.  Addressing the achievement gap was the excuse for doing so.  It is no coincidence that those 15 schools taken over by the EAA fall within the boundaries of Detroit, a city that is over 80% black with a poverty rate of close to 40%.  As the Metro Times has recently revealed, those children captured by the EAA have been treated as subjects in a poorly run experiment.  This is not education, it is child abuse, but these are children who are invisible, and therefore subject to experimentation that maintains the invisibility of its abuse.

Detroit is separated from Oakland County by one road.  Oakland County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States with a population of over a million.  Its population is close to 80% white.  None of its public schools has been taken over by the EAA.

One road.

So, this might lead to some questions. But that will make us uncomfortable.

I’ll ask anyway.

How can two areas that are so different in make-up, in wealth, in race, in privilege, be separated by one road?  How can one be so white and so rich, and the other be so black and so poor?

Senator Paul Ryan and others would say this is a cultural problem.  That there is a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates this division.  His frame thus insinuates that the problem is with minorities.

He’s wrong.

It’s an equity problem, and you can’t address equity in this country without addressing the historical context of race.  As Paul Thomas writes, “…race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. …If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice…

You simply can’t address equity without addressing the dominant culture of whiteness.

But this is something that the evidence says we just aren’t ready to be honest about.


Allowing the Market, Failing Kids

The Detroit Free Press has come out with a scathing indictment of charter school operations in the state of Michigan.  The series reveals the greed and almost total lack of oversight that has allowed charters to churn over $1 billion in public money spent into private profit.  The series is well-done and a necessary must read. However, because this report accepts the basic assumptions that allow for privatization in the first place, it also dangerously obscures the pattern of elements that continues to decimate public education.

Education as an Economic Utility

The first assumption that the Free Press uncritically accepts as normative is the idea that the purpose of education is economic.  That is, education serves to allow for individuals to have access to our economic system.  That the purpose of education is to allow for students to make money in the future and drive our country’s economic engine.  In his introduction to the series, Free Press editor Stephen Henderson starts with the presumption that charter schools are in theory, as he puts it in the first two words of his article, a “Great idea.”  He positively references former Michigan Governor (and current president of Business Roundtable) John Engler’s push for charters in 1993- a push that was motivated by economic utility.  (And Business Roundtable continues to promote the idea that we need a solid education system because, “America needs a world-class, skilled workforce to lead in global innovation, ensure future economic growth and drive…”) Henderson later writes that children’s future success, “… is largely determined by the quality of public education.”

The problem is that this frame of economic utility and the idea that “future success is largely determined by the quality of education” are what allow for the privatization of education in the first place.

Education is important.  Among other things, it’s important as a foundational aspect of democracy. However, we all suffer when education is treated as an individualized commodity that is justified by its effect only on our economic standing. The Insight Lab’s report describes the problem this way:

“Most school reform proposals, as well as policies current among the status quo, were measured by fairly narrow criteria: will more students be prepared for college? Will they have the skills they need to pursue remunerative jobs? Will they form a workforce that will keep the United States competitive? …given that the highest ideal offered by the model was the economic success of individuals, it would be illogical for most parents to commit their time and energy to the future of children besides their own.” (emphasis added)

Education imagined as a one-dimensional, individualized economic vehicle simply doesn’t serve the whole very well.  It becomes one more consumer commodity, and my job is to get mine.

This idea is particularly delusionary when in reality, and especially as our society becomes more polarized and less mobile on the basis of class, education does not cause economic success, in spite of the continuing myth that education is the lever for pulling kids out of poverty.  Instead, as Paul Thomas writes, “Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.”

As Matt Bruenig writes in, What’s More Important: A College Degree or Being Born Rich?:

“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 kids!”

As Bruenig describes, rich people stay rich in our society.  And, regardless of educational level of attainment, with few exceptions, (which  due to college costs is more and more of a dream for those in poverty), poor kids stay poor.

Thomas puts it succinctly, “In short, education alone is not the key to social reform. Period.” 

The myth that education is the answer to poverty allows us to blame the poor for being poor, and to avoid addressing poverty itself.  After all, the logic goes, if education is the way out of poverty, all it takes is some grit and a good school (Charter or private preferably. And is there a difference? )


In The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, David Blacker writes, “The scene of resistance is the class struggle.  In fact, an excessive focus on education, say, in the form of advancing an allegedly liberatory pedagogy, in the absence of a broader and enveloping social movement, is ultimately going to be delusional.” (pg. 100)

It would be nice if we could stop pretending that education is the silver bullet.

It would be nicer if we could actually address poverty.

The False Narrative of Failing Schools

The other assumption that Free Press accepts as normative is the idea that “schools fail” as determined by the competition of “school rankings.” Henderson’s introduction is ripe with the business language of corporate education reform, of “accountability” and “results matter.”  “Results,” in this formula, are test scores. The need for “accountability,” in this formula, is meted out based on test results. This sentence makes my hair stand on end: “And competition can raise standards- when it’s managed competition.”  All of this shows an acceptance of the neoliberal pipe dream of the market as reformer. Though Henderson critiques an all-out market model, he also assumes the that the educational market model is appropriate and can work, it just needs to be better managed.

The issue being addressed by the Free Press isn’t the model of the market wrongly imposed on a public system- it’s the management of the market.  And the winners of the competition within said market are determined by “school rankings,” and such rankings are based on test results.

And test results are the tool that furrows the ground for the seeds of privatization.

As I’ve put it previously, “What do we know about test scores?  That the best predictor of success is socio-economic status. It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring?  By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves.  ‘Failing schools’ do not exist.  What do exist are communities that we have failed.”

So what do school rankings show us?  Where poverty is concentrated.  However, they are used as indictments of the whole public school system, thereby justifying the need for privatization, vouchers, value added measurements, and lots of charter schools, even if, as in the state of Michigan, almost 80% of these charters are for profit.

Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, describes the debilitating pattern of achievement testing used as a tool for privatization this way: “Competition may produce better shoes and jeans, but there is no evidence that it produces better schools. The advance of privatization depends on high-stakes testing.  The federally mandated regime of annual testing generates the data to grade not only students and teachers but schools. Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus; school according to the metrics…it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and students flee the school…the more school struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.” (pg. 319)

This test based accountability is simply a death spiral for public education that justifies the existence of charters and privatization. Blacker again, “It should now be clear that to everyone that neoliberal education policy is not about reforming public schools.  It is about obliterating any remaining vestiges of the public square via a market discipline that is officially supposed to apply to everyone but in reality is selectively applied only to those lacking sufficient wealth to commandeer state policy.”  (pg. 106) It is this market driven process of the obliteration of the public square that the Free Press fails to address. According to it, the issue is not privatization, but only the management of that privatization.

Let me be fair.  The Free Press does critique the profit making of many of the charters, and the series appropriately takes these charters to task.  Kudos.  Yet it fails to critique the system that allows for said profit making.  And in doing so, it allows for the continued avoidance of the root cause of failing communities- concentrated poverty and the racialized context those communities exist within. If we don’t directly address the issues of poverty and race, the increasing inequity in our country, we will continue to leave children behind.

Read the whole report.  You will find the level of greed and deceit involved in propping Michigan’s charter system absolutely infuriating- though not surprising. (And highly predictable.)

Just keep in mind what it isn’t saying.

The Myth of Neutrality and the Common Core

The other day I got myself involved in a little Twitter dust-up over the Common Core.  The gist of it was that the other twitteree was arguing for the standards, while I was arguing that, even if you believe the standards are fine, to ignore the political implications of high-stakes testing is naive.  We now have a clear pattern brought to us through the history of high-stakes testing that shows us that Common Core is one more step in the decimation of the common good.  (See more on my stance here.)

Anyway, as it became abundantly clear that each of us was wasting our time and simply using this argument to reinforce our own positions, I quit.  And then I was sent this final tweet that said,

“…sadly there is no one neutral enough to clearly explain the facts.”

I wonder, to what degree does this myth of neutrality feed in to our problem?

If you don’t know who Grace Lee Boggs is, I recommend you find out.  And if you’re not aware of the work of the Boggs Center in Detroit, check them out.

Grace sent out an email today that quoted E.H. Carr from his 1961 essay, “What is History?”   The quote:

“It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is of course, untrue.  The facts speak only when historians call on them:  it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”

It’s pretty to think that facts somehow float above the grounding of the context they work within.  They don’t.  We need to understand that regardless of the way they are presented, facts are always grounded in a story, which communicates a view-point, which is attached to a set of values.  This understanding necessitates certain questions:  Whose story is this?  Who benefits from this story?  Who loses in the story?  And, as Howard Zinn and James Loewen (among others) have pointed out so well, history is told by the winners.

The real problem is that this myth of neutrality occurred not only in history, but as we are creating history now.  And because this myth obscures the values underlying it since it wrongly assumes no values (neutrality),  it continues to serve those who benefit from the way things currently are, those in power and of privilege.

The story of the Common Core as a set of neutral standards that serve all students is simply a myth.  The Common Core exists within a context of values. It is part of a narrative that benefits some, and hurts others.  However, because the myth of neutrality hides the narrative,  it requires some extra work  on our part to dig into the story  behind it.

As citizens, public intellectuals and educators with a stake in this story, our job is to do the homework and unpack the story of the Common Core, to problematize it with our questions, and to determine the beneficiaries of this particular narrative, and to determine those who are hurt by it.  We simply can not accept the myth of neutrality because the pattern of history shows the common good is being destroyed by the values it obscures.

Fortunately, lots of others have laid the groundwork for unveiling the stories underlying the Common Core.

Here are some beginning resources for your homework:

Diane Ravitch’s statement of her stance on the Common Core:  Why I Oppose the Common Core

Susan Ohanian’s page of Common Core resources:  http://www.susanohanian.org/core.php

Mercedes Schneider on the money behind the Common Core:  A Brief Audit of Bill Gates’ Common Core Spending

One of Anthony Cody’s recent essays on Common Core:  Is the Common Core Becoming a Fiasco?

Carol Burris on her change of position on the Common Core:  I Was Naive on the Common Core

Jeff Bryant connecting our testing obsession with the money behind it:  Sorry Michelle Rhee, But Our Obsession With Testing Is All About Money

And Paul Thomas’s call to action:  A Call for Non-Cooperation

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 www.lushquotes.com)

The Ethic of Care, Part 3: Caring in the Face of the Corporate Reform Movement

This is part 3 in a 4 part series based on the study, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates.

With this understanding of care in mind (see The Ethic of Care, Part 2), I would like to address the question of how the ethic of care is impacted by the current testing culture, which supports the contrary ethic of achievement.

As the authors note, “It is individuals and not organizations that care.” A school doesn’t care for a child, but a teacher does. However, “…schools can and should be organized in ways that support he efforts of teachers and others to care for children and adolescents.” The unwritten corollary of this, is that schools can also be organized in ways that do not support the efforts of teachers to care for children and adolescents.

Any school cultural practice that asks us to view our students as anything other than fully human, that objectifies them in order meet some abstract need (e.g., sufficient test score data), works to undermine all of our humanity. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to always treat the other as fully human- it would be too much to ask a fallible humans to do so. However, we do need to recognize the ways that patterns of behavior create a culture that encourages behaviors of objectification, “I/It” relationships, as opposed to a culture of humanity, “I/Thou” relationships.

Cassidy and Bates write that their study, “…reinforces the notion espoused by Greene (1991) and by Noddings (1988) that care, if implemented, will break apart existing structures, policies, and practices and manifest itself in less hierarchical and more student-centered ways.”

The move towards standards and towards a test driven accountability system enacts a culture that moves in the opposite direction away from a “less hierarchical and more student centered” culture. Testing and standardization are dependent upon a scripted culture of compliance (most exemplified by the behaviorally driven KIPP charter school system) rather than a culture of student centered relationships. A data driven, objectifying culture that views students’ wholly individual, and thus unique, talents through a set of superficial, standard normed data destroys the whole idea of “student centered” and replaces it with the business outcome language of “achievement,” “results” and “outcomes” that may work when the goal is to produce profit, but not so much when the goal is to nurture children and adolescents. A culture that privileges achievement also undermines care because it values the illusion of the clean abstraction of data over the flesh and blood messiness of humanity. In No Excuses and the Culture of Shame, Paul Thomas writes:

“… the school perpetuates a culture in which only numbers and quantitative data matter. The focus on quantitative data within the school and the broader public discourse allows ‘no excuses’ advocates to mask their means by trying to justify their ends. To shift the gaze away from the children involved is to dehumanize the discussion and hide that those same children are being dehumanized in these schools.”

This “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas critiques is dehumanizing exactly because it doesn’t consider what Thomas calls “the social context” of our humanity.

The question thus becomes, how can we act from an ethic of care in the face of current corporate reform movement? Where are the spaces that allow us to expand our humanity, and the humanity of the students we work with? This requires each of us to understand ourselves, our context, the culture we work within, and the students we work with. It requires, of each of us, a whole lot of critical thinking, and a whole lot of heart. And it requires that we recognize and support others we see doing this work.

Let’s get to it.

The Ethic of Care Part 4: On the Measurement of Care (and the Messiness of Humanity)

Patience, Thought and the Common Core

Two important pieces have come out in the last couple of days that analyze the impact of the Common Core. In Will a Year’s Delay Save the Common Core?, Anthony Cody looks into intelligent, effective alternatives to Common Core. Paul Thomas calls for non-cooperation with it in, A Call for Non-Cooperation: So That Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession. Both pieces are fairly long, and each requires some patience and thought. One of my concerns with the whole conversation around the CCSS is that patience and thought are both hard to find. We are naively rushing forward to impose them without fully understand the implications. It seems to me that as public workers and learners, educators also have the obligation to be public intellectuals. And this task requires much thought, and much patience. So please patiently and thoughtfully consider my addition to this conversation, but, more importantly, read Cody and Thomas’s works completely.

In my mind, there are two separate conversations regarding the Common Core. (Please recognize that I know these are simplifications of more complex arguments.) One of them focuses on the instructional aspects of the standards, while another focuses on the political implications of them. Let me address each in turn:

1. Instructional Integration
This conversation attempts to justify or criticize the quality of the standards themselves. For instance, the controversy over the privileging of non-fiction works over fiction in the ELA portion of the Common Core falls into this category (though not neatly). The essential focus of the instructional aspect of the Common Core has to do with the standards’ ability to improve individual schools and classrooms. What is the quality of the standards themselves? Will these standards help make teacher instruction and individual schools better?

2. Political Purposes
This conversation is a bigger picture conversation about the impact of the adoption of the standards on the quality of, perception of, and funding of public education. This conversation ties into the broader concern of the CCSS as a tool of high stakes testing, accountability and the corporate education reform movement.

There are many educators that I respect who are proponents of the CCSS from the perspective of its instructional aspects. They honestly, thoughtfully believe that the adoption of the Common Core has the ability to improve their classrooms and/or schools. Their arguments are coherent, and though I disagree, I do respect their positions. There are no educators that I know who are in support of high stakes testing and the corporate education movement. So, though there are differing opinions on what the imposition of the CCSS means for classrooms, there is strong consensus among educators against the political purposes of the CCSS.

The problem is, that by agreeing with the adoption of the Common Core based on an instructional argument, educators also accept all of the political implications that come with it. As the standards are adopted, measurement of those standards will also be adopted. And we have enough experience to know that the superficial testing measures of the accountability movement, and the national testing that tied to national standards, actually means the continued dismantling of public education as we know it. The two different conversations as I have outlined them are necessarily conflated. (And for a great example of this conflation, see Common Core Standards Are Common Sense from the Detroit Free Press. The author, one who I generally admire, uses the argument of instruction- posed from a position of neutrality that veils the political consequences of her argument- to react to a politically ideological stance.) By agreeing with and accepting the CCSS as means of improving instruction, we also condone and accept its political consequences as a tool of the corporate education reform movement. As public intellectuals of thoughtfulness and patience, we can no longer be naive in our belief that classroom practices tied to accountability measures have been beneficial for what’s left of public education in this age of neo-liberalism. As Thomas writes in another article, Corporations Are Behind the Common Core- And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

“In other words, high-stakes testing labels and creates achievement gaps; it doesn’t help close the gap. Since the history of accountability has shown that all standards that are linked to high-stakes tests become what is tested is what is taught, CCSS are destined to the same failure as found during the preceding thirty years.”

By leveraging the gaps that it necessarily creates, the standards and testing movement continues to dismantle the commons of public education, and to profit corporations such as Pearson and a number of for profit charter companies. And by naively condoning the instructional aspects of the CCSS, we continue to allow the nefarious political implications.

Thought and patience, followed by a good dose of activism, please.

For another thorough example of thinking about the Common Core, read Diane Ravitch’s, Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards