The Lingering Legacy of Segregation

As we approach 60 years since U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and stand in the wake of a 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, Richard Rothstein details:

Today, many black children still attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty: 39 percent of black children are from families with incomes below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of white children (U.S. Census Bureau(a)); 28 percent of black children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 4 percent of white children (Casey 2013).

Reports from 2012 also highlighted the growing resegregation of schools in the South and across the U.S. Concurrent with the re-segregation of public schools—along with the ignored reality that children’s ZIP codes tend to determine their access to high- or low-quality schools, which reflect the affluence/poverty of the community—a growing commitment to charter schools ignores that charter schools fail to achieve academic success distinguishable from traditional public schools (both formats of schooling produce a range of outcomes) but tend to segregate children by race and class.

Rothstein recognizes a historical link between burying the Coleman report from the mid-1960s and the rise of “no excuses” reform today:

The fear of education reformers today, that discussion of social and economic impediments to learning will only lead to “making excuses” for poor teaching (Rothstein 2008), mirrors fears in 1966 that similar discussion would undermine support for federal aid to education.

A few important lessons lie beneath these historical and current patterns.

First, continuing to refuse to confront, discuss, and address directly race, class, segregation, and inequity guarantees that none of these contexts will ever be overcome.

Next, continuing to focus on bureaucratic and political answers to complex social and educational issue is the central failure we associate with “government.” When government is primarily political and bureaucratic, it is impotent or even corrosive.

For democracy and government to work, then, we must re-envision government as a mechanism for democratic goals. That will require lessening our faith in the free market and the Invisible Hand while increasing our faith in the Commons.

Segregation itself is ugly but so is its recent history in the U.S.

Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has nearly eradicated blatant and legal segregation. But that structural shift forced segregation to go underground.

A second wave of segregation developed and has existed in public schools for decades—schools within schools. The persistent use of  tracking and the gate-keeping mechanisms that create Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate “schools” within the “other” schools where mostly black and brown children living in poverty sit in overcrowded classes with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers have institutionalized a masked segregation that we still mostly ignore.

Upon that second wave of insidious and tacit segregation we are now confronted with a third frontier of segregation that almost no one seems to find offensive—represented by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and their copy-cat “no excuses” charters (see the story of New Orleans for a vivid picture).

Public education is a mirror of U.S. society. Our schools do not change society; they mimic and perpetuate our society.

The school-choice-option of the day, charter schools, is yet more of the great bureaucratic failure of government—investing precious public funds to build a system of schools that are indistinguishable from the schools we claim are failing, replete with the worst public education has to offer.

If segregation is a scar on a free people (and it is), then segregation cannot be tolerated in any form in our public institutions.

Commitments to new standards, next-generation high-stakes tests, charter schools, and Teach for America are not only failed education reform mechanisms, but also tragic re-investments in segregation that remains separate and unequal.

The rich get richer, and fewer, while everyone else frantically competes for the little that is left over.

Rothstein ends his report by confronting public policy:

It is inconceivable to think that education as a civil rights issue can be addressed without addressing residential segregation—a housing goal of the March on Washington. Housing policy is school policy; equality of education relies upon eliminating the exclusionary zoning ordinances of white suburbs and subsidizing dispersed housing in those suburbs for low-income African Americans now trapped in central cities.

By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right. It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve, but to renew it.

Saying education is the civil rights issue of our time, as President Obama and Secretary Duncan do, is a hollow political act. To continue that refrain while embracing policies that increase inequity and segregation tarnishes daily the brave and bold words and actions that held such promise at mid-twentieth century.

Time as Capital: The Rise of the Frantic Class

Imagine a world where time is capital.

This is the dystopian future of 2161 brought to film by Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011)—triggering some powerful parallels to Logan’s Run (both the original novel from 1967 and the film adaptation in 1976).

Both Logan’s Run and In Time expose the human condition in terms of age and mortality—in the first, life ends at 30, and in the latter, people stop aging at 25, but at a price, which involves time.

Science fiction (SF) as a genre presents us with allegory in the form of other worlds, as Margaret Atwood argues, and speculations, but the most engaging aspect of SF for me as a fan and teacher is when SF unmasks universal and contemporary realities by presenting those other worlds.

One of the recurring messages of SF is the crippling inequity that continues to plague human societies, such as the haunting and sparse Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” that forces reader to admit privilege exists on the backs of the innocent and oppressed.

The world of In Time presents an apparent meritocracy in which all people are given life until 25, when they stop aging but an embedded clock starts ticking forcing everyone to earn time in order to live. This deal with the devil positions all labor as literally necessary to live and puts banks at the center of who survives.

The Frantic Distraction of Surviving

Americans’ faith in a meritocracy is often expressed in claims of the U.S. being a post-racial society as well as a classless society. Like the Hunger Games trilogyIn Time highlights class distinctions as people are segregated in Time Zones. Eventually, the narrative brings together the two main characters, Will Salas from the ghetto and Sylvia Weis from the affluent zone, New Greenwich.

Due to both personal tragedy and a huge gift of time from a stranger, Will confronts the norms of this dystopia while being hunted by a Timekeeper, Raymond Leon. One scene, I think, deserves closer consideration.

When Will travels from the ghetto through several Time Zones (incrementally costing him more and more time) to New Greenwich, he steps out of the cab and immediately begins jogging, a habit common in the ghettos since almost everyone is living, literally, from paycheck to paycheck (or under the weight of time loans, loan sharks, or pawn shops) until he notices that in New Greenwich people are eerily casual. This distinction comes up again when he is eating breakfast and the waitress notices that he isn’t from New Greenwich because he does everything fast.

People in the ghettos, what can reasonably be called the working class and the working poor, lead lives that are so frantic that no one has the time to confront the inequity of the society, and because of the segregated society, these frantic workers have little insight into the lives of privilege, casual lives, that Will witnesses for himself and the viewer.

Also worth closer consideration is the role of the Timekeeper, Leon, who presents a truly complex character who functions under a code of ethics that is perfectly ethical within the norms of the culture, but ultimately self-defeating and dehumanizing. Timekeepers enforce the laws, primarily couched in time as capital, but because of their close proximity to crime, they carry with them only small quantities of time, thus leading frantic lives very similar to the working class/poor they help keep both in line and frantic.

Ultimately, Will exposes truths that challenge the norms of this society, truths that are in fact just as relevant to the world we now inhabit:

• Will discovers that time is not a limited commodity; there is plenty of capital, but the privileged create scarcity to keep the masses frantic, and distracted.

• Timekeepers as a police force are unmasked as not seekers of justice (Leon admits this directly), but as agents of the privileged.

• The moving target of the free market is exposed as not so much “free” but an arbitrary mechanism that puts most people in a life like caged gerbils on running wheels. Interest rates and prices incrementally increase daily as the workers accumulate time. The system is designed to keep workers trapped in their roles as workers.

• And privilege, as Le Guin’s story shows, is always at the expense of others, captured by this exchange from In Time:

Sylvia Weis: Will, if you get a lot of time, are you really gonna give it away?Will Salas: I’ve only ever had a day. How much do you need? How can you live with yourself watching people die right next to you?

Sylvia Weis: You don’t watch. You close your eyes. I can help you get all the time you want.

In effect, while the details may be exaggerated, the lessons learned by Will are disturbingly relevant to contemporary Americans, as much as how it informs us as workers as it highlights that education reform is more concerned with producing workers than proving all children with equity, liberation, and autonomy.

Frantic Students, Frantic Workers: The Rise of the Frantic Class

The frantic state of being among the working class and working poor of In Time is a perceptive dramatization of the American worker, increasingly stripped of rights as unions are dismantled and the essentials of human dignity (income, health care, retirement) are further tied to being employed.

But the allegorical messages of In Time also speak to how and why current education reform claims and policies are designed to appease corporate needs for frantic workers.

One characterization of U.S. public education today is well represented in this dystopian world—frantic.

Current corporate education reform is built on implementing national standards designed to continue the historical call to incrementally increase both expectations and outcomes (the target for success in education has always been a moving target) so that students, teachers, and schools are always under duress, always falling short, always so frantic that no one can pause to question, challenge, or do anything other than comply.

Imagine a world where time is capital, where all of any person’s time is spent compiling time, a fruitless cycle of acquisition, of seeking to comply with the mandates none of the masses have chosen for herself/himself.

But you don’t have to imagine this.

This frantic world of In Time is the frantic existence of the American worker, and this frantic world is being fed by the corporate takeover of public schools where accountability, standards, and testing have reduced teachers and students to gerbils on running wheels.

In 2012, workers, students, and teachers are the frantic class; like Will, we don’t have time:

Will Salas: I don’t have time. I don’t have time to worry about how it happened. It is what it is. We’re genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever. And the rest of us? I just want to wake up with more time on my hand than hours in the day.

The rising frantic class is necessary for the privileged few, the 1% controlling both manufactured austerity and the perpetually moving targets of success.While universal public education was created to feed the promise of the American Dream, the current corporate takeover of public schools is driving the American Nightmare of the frantic class.

We don’t need a movie to see that.

Related Poem

“the world”

Related Blogs about SF

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: Allegory of Privilege

Whence Come “The Leftovers”?: Speculative Fiction and the Human Condition

Calculating the Corporate States of America: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Public education in the U.S. suffers under a powerful intersection of politics, the media, and the public. As I have too often documented, misinformation tends to be reinforced among all three of these forces.

The role of media, as Alfie Kohn has examined, is central to perpetuating not only misleading beliefs about school quality and education reform but also bad policy.

For example, in South Carolina, The Greenville News has posted an editorial position on reading legislation that misreads what is the best path forward for addressing literacy in this high-poverty and deeply segregated state, notably:

The core part of the legislation makes common sense and is widely supported. It would make it mandatory to retain any third-grader who is not proficient in reading by the end of the school year. It is an idea that has been implemented in Florida to promising results, and it simply makes sense. Promoting a child to fourth-grade if he or she lacks the needed reading skills dooms that child to failure. Although holding back a student can have negative effects on him or her, that student certainly will do better if educators ensure he or she first knows how to read before advancing past third grade.

While we may need some proof that retention of third graders based on high-stakes test scores is in fact “common sense,” it seems true that retention is “widely supported.” The problem with those justifications is that four decades of research strongly rejects retention and close analysis of Florida’s Just Read, Florida, policies discredits claims of its “promising results” (see a full analysis with extensive evidence of the research base on both here).

A point of flawed logic also drives this editorial position: Retention and promotion are not the only options available, and are thus a false dichotomy that likely sits beneath the reality that retention is “widely supported” by the public and then political leaders (see how narrow choices create a false narrative that an issue is supported in the fourth paragraph from the end here).

Further, embedded in this misunderstanding of the research base on retention are careless claims about Florida’s education reform success as well as the current understanding of reading/ literacy instruction and development.

Florida, in fact, is a lesson in what not to do in terms of education policy (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Reading/ literacy instruction has been eroded by the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing. Literacy is misrepresented by multiple-choice testing, and teaching to those tests greatly warps good literacy instruction.

Test-reading is almost nothing like reading in the real world.

Instead of misguided reading policies reinforced by uninformed media endorsements, a few important and grounding commitments should be guiding reading policy:

  • First, do no harm. Allowing reading policy to be linked to harmful retention policies is inexcusable.
  • Relieve literacy policy from the accountability machine. Authentic, rich, and holistic literacy is eroded by focusing on isolated and skills-based instruction and testing.
  • Recognize that literacy is deeply linked to social class. Unless some powerful efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, students from poverty will remain mislabeled as “bad students” in school and then mis-served in those schools by being funneled into skill-and-drill classes serving the mandates to raise test scores.
  • Set aside the crisis discourse and policies related to literacy. Treating third grade like an Emergency Room ensures that students in most need of patient and rich learning environments will continue to be offered emergency care, and thus once again will be cheated.
  • Embrace low-cost and evidence-based practices that will guarantee literacy growth by increasing student access to books in their lives and their schools: “Perhaps the most serious problem with current literacy campaigns is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: Lack of access to books for children of poverty,” explains Stephen Krashen.

Literacy growth is a natural part of being human. Children in middle-class and affluent homes (and thus likely to be enrolled in schools and classes that reinforce rich and authentic literacy) enjoy the sort of experiences with literacy all children deserve.

Retaining third graders based on high-stakes testing will further perpetuate inequity and erode opportunities for children living in poverty to experience rich and authentic learning environments with texts that would result in the type of literacy growth associated with privileged children.

A final problem with the media’s endorsement of “common sense” and “widely supported” education policy is the recurring call for compromise (see Cindy Scoppe at The State), also expressed in The Greenville News editorial:

The important work this fall and heading into the next legislative session is for education leaders and lawmakers to get on the same page about how such an effort would be implemented. There is plenty of room for common ground on this issue….

When policy is evidence-based (as it should be), a compromise between positions that are not evidence based and positions that are evidence based results in flawed policy. In other words, compromise between wrong and right can only result in wrong.

Yes, I recognize that politics is the realm of compromise, but I also believe therein lies the great failure of politics for setting education policy.

In the end, then, much could be solved if we kept our focus on first, do no harm instead of seeking always compromise as the basis for decisions on education policy.

Racial Inequity Undeniable in U.S.

About the historical approaches to addressing poverty, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1967:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power, they have lagged behind increases in production. Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

In 2013, when poverty is discussed by President Barack Obama, speaking as the leader of the free world and a bi-racial man, the emphasis remains on indirect, and ineffective, strategies:

The stubborn persistence of racial inequality has left policymakers at odds over what to do, and President Obama has resisted targeted efforts to erase racial economic disparities. Instead, he has pushed policies, such as increasing college access and broadening health-care coverage, aimed at lifting the fortunes of all middle- and working-class Americans. He has said that approach will have a disproportionate and positive effect on black Americans….

Obama has said that closing gaps in educational achievement will go a long way toward closing racial inequalities.

Others are not so sure.

“I’d love to run the president’s experiment,” said Darity, the Duke professor. “We really have to face up to the fact that there is a persistence of discrimination that explains a lot about income and employment gaps.”

However, racial inequity persists:

[R]acial economic disparities are mostly unchanged and in some cases are growing. In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time.

The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau….

Darity called the evidence of discrimination irrefutable. He noted that the 12.1 percent jobless rate for blacks with some college education was higher in 2012 than the 11.4 percent rate for white workers who have not finished high school. He also pointed to work by Princeton University researcher Devah Pager, who found that a black job applicant with no criminal history got a callback or job offer about as often as a white applicant with a felony conviction.

With race and class deeply intertwined, the racial inequity in the U.S. both feeds and is intensified by economic inequity, as Matt Bruenig explains about his titular question “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!

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.

The path that leads to the end of racial and economic inequity must be one built on direct strategies to eradicate poverty, as King implored:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change: “Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant”

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner* challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, I joined the majority of voters in the U.S., electing the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, however, I voted for Barack Obama primarily because I believed his election was an important symbolic moment for the U.S.; I did not buy his message of hope and change (although I was hopeful), and I was skeptical that the Democratic establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas assume the mantle of U.S. President.

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered, Obama is no progressive—much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policy is yet more doubling down on the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda is committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011)

And despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to hope and change by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan masks a neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is the exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • It’s proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.”

Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own….

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is inexcusable against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and endorses twice “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.”

More than 30 years ago, Gardner argues:

The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers. (p. 99)

With Obama’s failed education agenda before us as part of three decades of failed accountability policies, Gardner seems prophetic.

And despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), I must side with George Carlin:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever,  ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.

I fear this isn’t simply biting social satire. I fear that this isn’t easily discounted as cynicism. I fear that Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

* “Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)

Gates’s Cannibalistic Culture: Coming to a School Near You!

Bill Gates has adopted education as a billionaire’s hobby for many years—once supporting small schools projects, but more recently focusing on teacher quality.

Little attention, however, has been paid in the mainstream media to Gates’s struggles in business (Microsoft) or his complete lack of expertise, experience, or success as an educational entrepreneur.

Until this expose by Vanity Fair addressing the key practices at the foundation of Microsoft’s failures (“Today, a single Apple product—the iPhone—generates more revenue than all of Microsoft’s wares combined”). [1]

Gates has argued for a need to identify the best (and worst) teachers in order to control who teachers teach and how:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

In effect, Gates’s plan to address teacher quality is shared among almost all education reformers, including the USDOE and Secretary Arne Duncan, and focuses on labeling,ranking, and sorting teachers—a practice eerily similar to the “Cannibalistic Culture” identified as central to the failures at Microsoft:

Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

“Competing with Each Other”: Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It all starts with a lie. A very compelling lie that has the weight of common sense reinforced by the proclamations of people with wealth, Bill Gates, and power, Secretary Arne Duncan: Teachers are the single most important element in the learning of a child.

The problem is, of course, this is factually untrue. Nonetheless, the follow up lie (when you base a conclusion on a false permise, that conclusion is also false) is also compelling: Teacher quality must be improved!

The balance of evidence shows that measurable student outcomes (itself a serious flaw in how we draw conclusions about both student learning and teacher quality) is overwhelmingly linked with out-of-school factors—anywhere from about 2/3 to well over 80% of that data correlated with out-of-school factors.

Even arguing that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in measurable student outcomes is problematic since the research on that claim is mixed at best (some evidence suggests that school leadership and culture are as important, if not more so, than teacher quality).

Gates and the USDOE, then, are making a foundational problem of seeking solutions to problems that haven’t been identified. In other words, no one has shown definitively that teacher quality is the primary or even one of the primary causes of low student outcomes.

Now, once we move beyond that problem, approaches to teacher evaluation and pay may need to be revised, but ample evidence shows that the proposals being offered by Gates and Duncan, as well as all across the U.S., are also without solid evidence to support them (disproportionate teacher assignment has been identified, but that reality is somehow often ignored since the privileged children are winning in that inequity [see Peske & Haycock, 2006]).

Incentive-based evaluation and compensation have a long record of being ineffective, counter-production, and not cost effective (see Hout & Elliot, 2011, and Kohn, 1993/1999). Yet, as with the compelling message about teacher quality and student outcomes, competition and incentives are almost universally embraced in U.S. culture without regard for the evidence (see Worthen, et al., 2009, regarding competition).

That leads to the revelations about the previously unexplored problems at Microsoft exposed by Eichenwald—the Cannibalistic Culture of stack ranking by which all workers are evaluated on an imposed scale of ranking in order to identify the elite workers.

If Eichenwald’s characterization of the ranking as corrosive is accurate, leading as it did to workers “competing with each other,” then we can anticipate a truly disturbing reality to occur when teachers are held accountable for their students’ grade as significant percentages of their evaluations and compensation: Teachers will begin to use their students as weapons of mass instruction to defeat the students of the competing teachers, either in their own school or within the district.

This is a debilitating and ethically corrupt outcome that cannot be avoided if we continue to seek incentive-based, VAM approaches to teacher quality.

Education and teacher quality absolutely need to be reformed, but increasing the Cannibalistic Culture for teachers and students is not the path we need as a free people seeking universal public education as a central institution supporting democracy.

Education is a collaborative venture; a culture of competition is poison in the teaching/learning dynamic. Labeling, sorting, and ranking teachers and students is inexcusable in any form as long as we are genuinely committed to fostering a culture of collaboration necessary for learning.

The Cannibalistic Culture has created the winners who call for expanding that game. The Cannibalistic Culture benefits only the winners as it forces the status of loser upon most people regardless—again consider the stack ranking at Microsoft.

Teacher evaluation and education need to be reformed toward a culture of collaboration, a culture that encourages human interactions that are not about winning or losing and not about fighting for ever-shrinking pieces of the pie.

Public education and teacher quality reform currently being pursued is certain to drive good people from teaching and to ask less and less of both teachers and students. We have ample evidence from the disturbing Microsoft story being revealed to us, but we also have the stories of generations of teachers who know how education and teaching need to be supported and reformed.

Teachers want all students to succeed. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. Teachers want school conditions that support their work as educators.

Teachers do not want to use their students to outperform some other teachers’ students.

A Cannibalistic Culture will certainly create students as weapons of mass instruction that will destroy universal public education.

[1] See also The Poisonous Employee-Ranking System That Helps Explain Microsoft’s Decline, which prompted this reposting from Daily Kos July 5, 2012.

Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise

Superintendents of education in states across the U.S. are necessarily political positions, either political appointments or elected offices.

Should, then, a superintendent of education visit public school districts to praise excellence—especially in districts and schools struggling under the weight of poverty? Of course.

But in the current accountability era that persists in pursuing education policy not supported by research and in the wake of Tony Bennett’s school grade manipulation scandal (and concurrentevidence from Florida that school grades are yet another failed education policy), public praise for district and school success is often a cover for promoting partisan political agendas.

via Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise.

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

If someone asks me what I do, without hesitation, I can always offer, “I am a teacher and a writer.”

I am extremely fortunate because I am able to make my living as both a teacher and a writer, something afforded me as a university professor. Being a writer and a teacher, also, are not vocations I have chosen, but who I am at my core. In other words, I did not choose to be a teacher and a writer, but I did come to recognize and embrace both ways of being.

Over the past thirty years, I have taught writing to a wide range of students (from high school through graduate courses), addressing all types of writing from poetry and fiction to personal and scholarly essays. For more than thirty years, I have been a serious writer, working on my own original poetry, fiction, essays, blogs, and academic books. Also part of life as a writer has included working as an editor—co-editing a state journal, editing a column in English Journal, editing two series at two different publishers (Peter Lang USA and Sense), and editing/co-editing book-length volumes.

All of these experiences with being a student, a teacher, a writer, and an editor have provided me with a great deal of experience that has taught me some important guidelines for students and authors preparing and submitting work in courses or for publication. I want here to outline some of that advice, recognizing that advice is often futile; it is the act of writing and experiencing all that is connected with writing that ultimately teaches us what we need to know.

First, let me offer some general comments about writing and being a writer. Essentially, there are two types of writers: ones who are compelled to write (and thus refer to themselves as writers and write regardless of achieving publication) and ones whose situation (being a student or being an academic) include the necessity to write. Each situation creates unique advantages and disadvantages, but I believe it is key for any person submitting work for course credit or publication to recognize which category she/he fits within order to understand what strategies are needed to be a successful writer regardless.

Next, two strategies are incredibly important for students and authors submitting work. One is embracing the life of a purposeful and diligent reader. Reading often as well as reading deeply and widely are essential for writing well. Reading for pleasure is important, but reading like a writer is also key. Reading like a writer involves looking at not just what writers say but how writers craft their messages. For students and authors submitting work for publication, acquiring genre awareness is a primary goal of reading.

Genre awareness is identifying and then working purposefully within or against the conventions associated with different purposes for and types of writing. For example, the characteristics of text that shape poetry (crafting a piece in lines and stanzas) differ from the characteristics of text that shape journalism. Students must gain control over the various expectations for academic writing among disciplines; writing about a work of literature is a different type of writing than preparing a literature review for a research assignment in a sociology class. Authors, as well, soon realize that submitting an Op-Ed to a local newspaper is quite different than submitting an essay to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

A second strategy is to seek out avenues for learning about language and writing beyond the formal classroom. One important resource is Joseph Williams’s Style. But dozens of engaging and thoughtful books exist to supplement the type of learning about of writing done in formal school settings.

Now, let me outline some guidelines for submitting writing, whether as a student for course credit or an author seeking publication:

  • In our digital age, my strongest recommendation is learn how to use your word processor, such as Word. Writers must master word processing so that the application works for you, making the tedious tasks of formatting manuscripts less time consuming so you can focus on crafting good writing. For writers, issues of headers and footers, title pages, formatting fonts and margins, handling block quotes, and formatting reference lists can create unnecessary stress that distracts from time needed for drafting and revising. The short point is that word processors will do most of these tasks in ways that are simple and quick; thus, learn how to use the word processor to do anything you need to do with preparing a manuscript.
  • A related piece of advice is “less is always better when formatting a manuscript.” A strong caution I must offer is avoid unneeded returns and all tabs. Two problematic areas for formatting a manuscript are block quotes and preparing bibliographies that require hanging indents; in both cases, do not manually put in returns and do not use tabs to format bibliographies, but do use the formatting features of your word processor. Also, bold and italics should be used sparingly and only within guidelines of the required style sheet. Never use quote marks or bold for emphasis (use italics, but, again, do so sparingly).
  • Just as less is key to formatting, simplicity is central to basic choices about manuscripts. Use 12 pt. Times New Roman for your font. Period. No variety of fonts, no variety of font sizes. Make sure headers and footers also have the same font choices. As well, in most cases (however, please conform to the style sheet required), double spacing is also required throughout, as well as 1″ margins.
  • Honor word count or page number requirements. Noting above, do not manipulate font type or size to reach a page count.
  • Follow the style requirements and refer to the appropriate guides for preparing your manuscript. Many students and authors need to conform to style and citation guidelines provided by professional organizations, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style. Understanding how style sheets differ and why also helps most writers conform to those guidelines.
  • When submitting cited writing, note that the list of references (headed differently among citation style sheets) is a part of the manuscript, although separated by a page break. Be sure to include the references list as part of the submitted manuscript. [Also be sure to include all proper citations in drafts and first submissions whether you are a student or author submitting for publication. Do not submit a piece and state you plan to add your references later; no one can adequately respond to a work requiring citations without full and proper documentation and the necessary list of references.]
  • Take care to provide an interesting and relevant title for all writing and take equal care with subheads (works of 4-5 pages or longer generally benefit from subheads), noting the formatting guidelines needed depending on the style sheet required.
  • Most students and writers will submit their work electronically (please attach your manuscript when you send that email), and as a result, most students and authors will receive comments and editing on their manuscripts through review features on word processors. As noted above, knowing how to use advanced review features on your word processor is crucial. Understand how to navigate track changes as you revise, but most important of all, be able to produce a clean subsequent draft to resubmit. An effective strategy is to save two versions of the returned manuscript—one that maintains all comments and track changes and a second (from which you’ll revise) that accepts all track changes and deletes all comments. Opening both files but working from the clean version (be sure to cut OFF track changes in that version) insures you’ll submit a clean draft for the next round of feedback, for a grade, or for a decision about publication.

Success when writing as a student or writing for publication, ultimately, depends on the quality of the ideas and expression in the final piece, but the initial experience a teacher and editor has with a submitted work begins that process. Students and authors must make that first experience a positive one.

The appearance of a manuscript sends a message about the purposefulness and professionalism of the writer. Students and authors must not expect teachers and editors to take more care with their manuscripts than the student or author has herself/himself.

The MLK Imperative in an Era of “No Excuses”

My father was a hard-ass, €”a Southern version of the Red Forman-type made popular in That 70’s Show. I grew up, then, in a “no excuses” environment rooted in the 1950s work ethic my father personified. [1]*

Mine was a working-class background: My paternal grandfather (for whom I was named) ran the small-town gas station where I grew up, and my maternal grandfather worked in the yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina.

Way before the “no excuses” ideology consumed the education reform movement of the 21st century, “no excuses” ruled my childhood and teen years. My behavior at home and school? No excuses. My academic achievement? No excuses.

Two important realizations, however, stem from that childhood and young adulthood of mine.

First, most of my academic, scholarly, and personal success occurred in spite of (not because of) that “no excuses” upbringing.

And second, in retrospect I recognize that the central element in that success, feeding my working-class roots, was enormous privilege driven by the coincidences of my being male, white, and possessing the academic acumen preferred by social and educational norms.

Privilege, Humility, and Community

Nestled somewhat silently and invisibly beneath the “no excuses” atmosphere of my childhood was two wonderfully loving parents €”and a culture of literacy that can clearly be identified as the source of my academic success.

The line from Dr. Seuss to Kurt Vonnegut is being necessarily oversimplified here, but from my earliest recollections, I loved reading and books. And by my late adolescence and young adulthood, I became an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, through whom I came to know alternative views of history (Sacco and Vanzetti by way of Jailbird, for example).

The most powerful lesson I have drawn from Vonnegut, however, has been the words, life, and actions of Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

From Debs I have come to understand that anyone’s privilege is the foundation for humility, not arrogance (no “I deserve this unlike others” attitude), and that all people bestowed with privilege should feel compelled to work diligently for the equity of others, with Debs’ works and life serving as models.

The key to that understanding of and praxis drawn from privilege is my embracing critical pedagogy:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)

My critical commitment, then, to equity is grounded in my work as an educator and scholar as well as my foundational focus on democracy, equity, and agency.

And it is there that I now turn to examining the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative in an era of “no excuses.”

Claim One: Poverty and Privilege Are Destiny

“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”

While this and other slogans are culturally compelling, factually in the U.S., poverty is destiny, and that reality is often as much linked to socioeconomic status as race.

Some acknowledgement exists for the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues poor and minority students; for example, the Justice Department in Mississippi has concluded, as Ferriss reports:

The suit alleges that the state, county and city “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,” said a Department of Justice press release.  “As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, I fear, is ultimately an inadequate metaphor for the current “no excuses” policies in many high-poverty and high-minority public and charter schools that are better described with schools-as-prisons.To understand the need to change the metaphor, we must first acknowledge that in the U.S. white males outnumber Latino and African American males about 3 to 1, but in U.S. prisons, Latino and African American males outnumber white males about 10 to 1.

The race and class implications of the causes behind these data are captured, I think, in James Baldwin’s assessment in “No Name in the Street” (1972):

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….€

The blurring of public institutions used for control instead of their democratic purposes has been questioned by Michel Foucault:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (Discipline & Punish, 1975)

The evidence that poverty is destiny is disturbingly reflected in our schools. Pre-kindergarten expulsions—€”overwhelmingly male and then disproportionately African American males—€”foreshadow our imprisonment inequities; and our “no excuses” school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, have directly transformed the school-to-prison pipelines into schools-as-prisons:

These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond….

Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling. Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways

While “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) issued a manifesto claiming that a child’s ZIP code does not determine access to educational quality, several recent studies show that ZIP code determines a child’s school [2], and then that school’s policies and quality further entrench that child’s future. For many African American males, ZIP code determines school quality and then that school experience is both like prison and a precursor to prison.These damning facts associated with schools, however, are but microcosms of larger social inequities. The U.S. is no longer a model of social mobility (Sawhill & MortonNorton & Ariely), and the U.S. ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrialized countries in the percentage of childhood poverty, well over 20%.

Public schools in the U.S. fail in two ways that are masked by claims that “poverty is not destiny” and school reform alone will allow schools to reform society: (1) Schools reflect the inequities of the wider society, and (2) schools perpetuate social inequities.

One of the most powerful examples of how schools reflect society is that student achievement is correlated between 60% and over 80% with out-of school factors (BerlinerJoseph Rowntree Foundation, ETS 2007 and 2009).

Yet, the current agenda coming from the NER remains blind to social realities and the inadequacy of their reform agenda, as Berliner explains:

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.

Claim Two: “No Excuses” Reform Entrenches Status Quo of Inequity

The discourse of NER has successfully framed a “failed public schools” narrative that receives the shorthand “status quo.” A central part of that narrative is built on the argument that school reform alone can change society, but these claims, in fact, create a logic problem for NER: For schools to change society (and for which there is no evidence this has ever happened), those schools must be unlike the society, yet both public schools and NER mirror and perpetuate social inequities:

Public School Problem
“No Excuses”€ Reform
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-under-certified teachers
Assign poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified)
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Common Core State Standards linked to new tests to create a standards-based testing and accountability system
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Federal government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Rename high-poverty schools “academy”€ or “€œmagnet”€ schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “€œno excuses” charters named “€œhope”€ or “€œpromise”€ [see above]
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Erase experienced teachers and replace with inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits [see above]
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned to teachers rewarded for teaching 40-1 student-teacher ratio classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Poor and Latino/Black students segregated into test-prep charter schools; special needs and ELL students disregarded [left for public schools to address; €”see column to the left]
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Teacher preparation rejected at the expense of content and pedagogy
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education [most of whom have no experience as educators] misinform and mishandle education
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above]: Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above and the column to the left]: NER reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society

For example, the opting out of NCLB policy under the Obama administration successfully combines the failures of traditional public schooling with the failures of “no excuses” ideology, notably the senseless consequences of the NCLB waiver in New Jersey:

Demographic Composition of New Jersey’s Priority, Focus and Reward Schools

Classification
# of Schools
Black/Latino
Free/Reduced Lunch
ELL
Student Mobility Rate
Priority
75
97%
81%
7%
24%
Focus
183
72%
63%
10%
15%
Reward
112
20%
15%
2%
5%

NER advocates depend on a narrative maintaining a focus on a fabricated status quo of failed public education in order to continue the same failures of that status quo under the mask of NER.

Claim Three: Social Context Reform Seeks Equity

While often discredited by NER narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers (SCR) are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argues SCR.

SCR is committed to the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:

“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Instead of calling again for indirectly addressing inequity and poverty (NER), SCR seeks to reform directly both society and education:

Social Context Reform
Social Commitments to Equity
School-based Commitments to Equity
Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children
End high-stakes testing and accountability; implement teacher/school autonomy and transparency (what schools offer and how v. student outcomes)
Childhood family food security
End labeling and sorting students
Stable and well-paying work for families (reform healthcare so jobs and healthcare are not linked); increase worker’s right and empowerment
Insure equitable teacher assignments
Re-commit to fully funding and supporting universal public education
Confront inequitable discipline policies and outcomes related to race, gender, and class
Insure universal public college access for all students
Reject the traditional deficit perspectivedriving public schooling and reflecting cultural deficit view of poverty
Honor and support school, teacher, and student AUTONOMY (current accountability culture is about complianceanti-democratic)

The King imperative, address poverty and inequity directly, must be acknowledged and embraced; the first step to direct action is to unmask the paradoxes of NER.

Ellison and Baldwin Speak to the King Imperative

Ralph Ellison’s address to teachers in 1963 exposes that social and educational failures have been historically intertwined, as he confronted “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.”

Ellison asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” concluding:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Embedded in the narratives of Ellison, and James Baldwin (see blow), are the threads that show education is not experiencing a crisis, but a systemic reality of the inequity in the culture and institutions of the U.S. We have no “achievement gap,” but we do have an equity gap that metrics such as the “achievement gap” reflect. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” an allegory of privilege, exposes that privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery. (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

This SF allegory is the story of the U.S., the story of ignoring the oppressed child that our privilege depends on by acknowledging “it,” or simply walking away.

As James Baldwin states in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” (1948): “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….”

NER in education maintains the idealism that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the rugged individualism myth in order to pursue the King imperative that we seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform that is then wedded to educational reform.

We must no longer justify inequity with our privilege, and taking an objective, apolitical pose is a “walking away” we can no longer afford.

Direct action is the only solution to the problem of inequity.

* This is a reposting from October 27, 2012, in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

[1] This blog is a narrative/expository version of a talk I delivered at the University of Arkansas on 18 October 2012; you can view the presentation PP here.

[2] See (a) “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; (b) The Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools”; and (c) “Is Demography Still Destiny?” from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.