More on Two Americas

Recently, I posed an argument about two Americas, personified by George W. Bush and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Over the past few days, the controversy surrounding Donald Sterling has offered even more evidence of two Americas. Let’s start with the unlikeliest of places—the ever-ineloquent Charles Barkley, who weighed into the Sterling situation by noting that Barkley (and other NBA players) is Black, but he isn’t Black:

While there are many things jumbled and fumbled in Barkley’s comments, we must not ignore his recognition of the powerful connection between race and class in the U.S.

In fact, Sterling’s own contradictory and illogical mixture of racism and sexism exposed in his taped conversation with his girlfriend is a perverse manifesto that reflects Barkley’s garbled argument, a recognition of two Americas, I think, well articulated by Jesse Myerson:

The logic of capitalism and racism are the same in this regard – those in power develop attitudes of supremacy to justify reaping the spoils of mass social repression. Sterling, the owner, regards the players as inferior to him and people like him, since they don’t “make the game.” Sterling, the racist, regards black people as inferior to him and people like him, unfit to live, say, in Sterling’s real estate holdings. There is only one Sterling, the players are black, and the supremacist ideologies are effectively indistinct.

The NBA is a microcosm of the corrosive power of capitalism to create the necessary two Americas that feed the possibility of capitalism itself. Black athletes are well rewarded—and it seems by the likes of Sterling, thus tolerated—because they contribute to the perpetuation of the white and privileged ownership in spite of the racism remaining among the privileged.

The two Americas, then, are a complex mix of both race and class, or more accurately, a segregation of both race and class that continues to allow only some token access into the larger context of privilege (but race remains a marker for the tolerated).

Far beneath this sensationalized radar, however, is yet another story of two Americas—one acted out in perpetuity throughout the South, or as I have labeled my home region, the self-defeating South.

Jillian Berman’s When It Comes To Health Care, There Are 2 Americas, And These Maps Are Proof presents a stark picture of two Americas:

Many of the worst states for health care have several things in common. They’re mostly in the South and are more likely to be among the poorest in the nation. Many of them have long had unusually tight standards for applicants to qualify for Medicaid, said Schoen, and many have been slow to expand children’s health insurance.

What’s more, 16 of the 26 states at the bottom of the Commonwealth Fund’s scorecard aren’t expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare….

Black Americans are likely to suffer disproportionately from these policies. More than two-thirds of poor, uninsured blacks live in states not expanding Medicaid, according to a December 2013 New York Times report. Already, the rate of avoidable early deaths among blacks is twice as high as among whites in many states, Commonwealth found. That gap is even wider in states with higher early death rates overall.

The healthcare debate shows that two Americas result from a complex mix of race and class—but again driven by a misplaced faith in the free market (capitalism) blended with an irrational distrust of “government” by the very people most likely to be mis-served by the Invisible Hand but well served by a robust Commons. This refusal to embrace universal healthcare (or something like it) is mirrored in the same antagonism toward unions throughout the South, yet another wedge that insures two Americas continue.

And since I opened this post with the ineloquent, I must offer the final words to a poet, who confronts the two Americas, grounded in geography, race, and class:

Where Is Outrage for Systemic Racism?

Where is the outrage for this?

The New Jim Crow

Where is the outrage for this?

Incarceration is not an equal opportunity punishment

Incarceration Rates by Race and Ethnicity, 2010

Where is the outrage for this?

Revealing New Truths About Our Nation’s Schools

Where is the outrage for this?

A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools

Where is the outrage for this?

The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes

Where is the outrage for this?

Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools

Where is the outrage for this?

A Rotting Apple

And thus …

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

In 2011, 3,764,698,318 retail prescriptions were filled in the U.S. If 0.01% of those prescriptions were filled incorrectly (and thus jeopardizing the health or even lives of patients, including children), 376,469 events could have constituted the danger of tolerating “bad” pharmacists.

Every day, patients are also served by doctors and surgeons who completed their degrees at the bottom of their classes.

Just how many “bad” doctors and “bad” surgeons are we willing to tolerate?

But in the scope of political and media scrutiny, it appears the greatest danger facing our children and society is the ever-present “bad” teacher. When Cindi Scoppe, Associate Editor for The State (Columbia, SC), explored her own experiences as a student, she concluded:

It only takes one lousy teacher, out of 50 really good ones, to leave indelible scars on a child’s education — and on a parent’s political perspective. It only takes one lousy teacher who returns to the classroom year after year to convince a parent that the public schools care more about preserving jobs for incompetents than providing every child with a good education. It only takes one lousy teacher to make a parent susceptible to the siren song of private school “choice” and “scholarships.”

Scoppe’s impassioned claim drawn from anecdote is both compelling and deeply misleading—both in the hyperbole (“one lousy teacher” and “indelible scar”) and the implication that anecdotes are generalizable and valid (some are, and some are not).

I have been a teacher for 31 years, and if we asked one student to pen a similar piece about me, it is possible she/he would draw the same conclusion because I have on occasion been the one “bad” teacher for a few handfuls of students—at least that would be their perception. And some who think I was “lousy” are entirely justified because I was (despite my best intentions), some who think I was “lousy” are, frankly, wrong, and some who think I was “lousy” are examples of how a teacher can be perfect for one student and lousy for another (and this is often the case on my student evaluations which include several students identifying me as the best teacher they have ever had and then one student saying I was the worst).

But the hyperbole grounded in anecdotes about “bad” teachers (and the related handwringing about the urgent need to be able to fire all those “bad” teachers) is more than a public and media failure; the hyperbole is driven by a political agenda as well, notably the recent announcement under the Obama administration that colleges of education are next on the reform agenda (including another round of accountability based on the test scores of students taught by their candidates).

So since the early 1980s, the education reform agenda has tried the following:

  • Link student promotion/retention and graduation to high-stakes tests.
  • Create school report cards based on high-stakes tests.
  • Base teacher promotion, pay, and retention on high-stakes tests.
  • Label and rank teacher education programs based on high-stakes tests.

There is a fatally flawed motif here (high-stakes tests), but even more troubling is that all efforts to reform education through accountability based on those tests have failed as well as increasing the exact problems the accountability advocates claim to be addressing. Exit exams increased drop outs and non-completers, school report cards stigmatized schools and reduced funding for schools most in need, teachers have been dismissed falsely and teacher attrition has increased under merit-based systems, and soon teacher education will suffer negative consequences as well.

So let’s return to the teacher quality problem in education.

On one important level, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that no child should have a “bad” teacher. But those who make that political and public claim appear insincere or misguided when we consider a few important foundational questions and contradictions:

  1. Where is the evidence that teacher quality is a fundamental or primary aspect of the causes of educational failures or weaknesses? And even if we have such evidence, teacher quality constitutes only about 10-15% of those factors impacting student achievement. Teacher quality, although important, is a minor issue in the context of what reform needs to be address.
  2. In the one area of teacher quality that has a large research base—poor, African American, and Latino/a students disproportionately are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers—the same political advocates of increasing teacher quality also endorse Teach For America, which is designed to assign inexperienced and uncertified teachers to poor, African American, and Latino/a students.
  3. By labeling and ranking teachers (and teacher education programs), we are insuring that we will always have “bad” teachers by the very nature of ranking and since we can never achieve the Lake Wobegon ideal of everyone being above the average.

It seems likely that education must always be in a state of reform. All children in fact do deserve excellent teachers and excellent schools—and thus we must always be working to that end, regardless of it not being possible to achieve it..

There also appears to be a need to maintain the perception of the “bad” teacher and the inability of schools to fire those “bad” teachers—regardless of the accuracy of the perception or how that contributes (or not) to better schools for all children.

Thus we must confront the corrosive nature of using anecdotes and hyperbole in the context of actual policy.

“Bad” teachers, the inability to fire those “bad” teachers, and the quality of teacher education programs—to be blunt—are calculated distractions in the big picture of What Is Wrong with Our Schools.

Political capital, however, can be built on and perpetuated by attacking these exaggerations in the ways that we have experienced for three decades now.

I have had “bad” teachers, and I have been perceived as a “bad” teacher. I have suffered a teacher certification process that I think was lacking, and I have participated in aspects of teacher certification I know are stymied by bureaucracy.

I strongly advocate for reform. I have no patience for “bad” teachers and for the status quo of teacher certification.

But I cannot tolerate education reform grounded in misleading anecdote and hyperbole, and I cannot support policies that, in fact, reinforce the exact problems we are facing.

And we must stop creating policy that seeks ideals beyond the scope of human control. Like 100% student proficiency in No Child Left Behind, having a school system with no “bad” teachers (or all excellent teachers) is unattainable. The goal itself insures failure. (“You know, my firend’s daughter had a bad teacher last year…”)

Again, where is the public, media, and political call for no “bad” pharmacists—a goal that seems far more pressing and necessary?

There is no political capital is bashing pharmacists, however, and that is the ugly secret about the “bad” teacher mantra: Bashing teaching is bashing a “woman’s” field, and pretending educational failure is mostly the fault of those teachers masks the racial and socioeconomic realities driving those failures.

No abusive teachers? I’m on board.

No predatory teachers? Absolutely.

No hungry child? No child without healthcare? No children living transient lives because their parents cannot find stable employment? Let’s move these to the front of the line, please.

But no “bad” teachers? Mostly hyperbole and disingenuousness so I call “calculated distraction” and demand no more “bad” politicians.

Anyone? Anyone?

What Do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

At NCTE’s Connected CommunityJoseph Robertshaw posed the question: What do college composition instructors want from incoming high school graduates?

The essence of this question has been at the center of my work as a teacher for over three decades—18 years as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina, two years as lead instructor for the summer institute of the Spartanburg Writing Project, and my current position that in part includes teaching writing-intensive first year seminars and a small administrative position as Faculty Director, First Year Seminars.

Let me start with a caveat about teaching with the next phase of formal education in mind.

Justifying classroom practices in the context of future educational expectations can be very dangerous because I have witnessed too many teachers implementing bad pedagogy because they justify those practices as “what students will need next year.” For example, when the SAT added the writing section in 2005, the one-draft and prompted sample essay as well as the return of isolated multiple-choice testing of writing changed classroom practices, as Thomas Newkirk warned in “The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?”:

[The 2005 addition of writing on the SAT] and the other state-mandated writing assessments are also intended as a message to high schools about the importance of writing instruction. It is worth asking, then, what kind of message these assessments will send. What kind of writing will they promote? (English Journal, November 2005, p. 21)

However, having an awareness and critical insight into future expectations for students does provide both teachers and their students grounding for better preparing students to be self-actualized and autonomous learners. Recognizing expectations for students as writers (even when those expectations are misguided) helps foster student empowerment so that they control their learning instead of education happening to them.

To address well what college professors expect from recent high school graduates in terms of those students as writers, we need to consider both learning experiences provided for students and the quality of student writing artifacts.

Now to the opening question.

College-bound high school students need to understand that writing is central to all disciplines—not something students do in English courses only. Many colleges have expectations that writing will be assigned and directly taught across the disciplines (for example, interdisciplinary first year seminars replacing traditional English 101/ composition courses). Thus, students need experiences with and understanding of both universal characteristics of effective writing and disciplinary conventions of effective writing (see Writing for Specific Fields).

When I was teaching high school, students often complained because I stressed the use of present tense verbs when analyzing literature and the U.S. history teacher required past tense verbs for writing about history. Those students wanted one rule.

But, students viewing writing as bound by rules is the results of classroom practices that foster that perspective. Instead, students need to understand the conventionality of writing and that those conventions are discipline- and purpose-based.

An excellent avenue to helping students move away from seeing their writing within the “one rule” context is to foster genre awareness [1] instead of genre acquisition:

GENRE ACQUISITION [is] a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….Using well-established pedagogies, practitioners follow a teaching/learning cycle as students are encouraged to acquire and reproduce a limited number of text types (‘genres’) that are thought to be basic to the culture (Macken-Horarik 2002).

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts….After my many years of teaching novice tertiary students who follow familiar text templates, usually the Five Paragraph Essay, and who then fail when they confronted different types of reading and writing challenges in their college and university classrooms, I have concluded that raising genre awareness and encouraging the abilities to research and negotiate texts in academic classrooms should be the principal goals for a novice literacy curriculum (Johns 1997). (pp. 238-239)

At its core, promoting genre awareness is an alternative to setting students up for what Scheele labels “the good student trap”—students who have received high grades and praise as good students based on their ability to comply with highly structured assignments (such as answering an essay prompt, conforming to a rubric, or tapping out a five-paragraph essay).

To offer a negative to the opening question, just as art professors at the college level do not want students who have done only paint-by-number, college professors who ask students to write do not want students who can write only canned essays and students who believe “never use ‘I’” or “don’t start sentences with ‘and.’”

And here, I note, is the key quality college professors want from students in all aspects of academics (and life), including writing: Students who are purposeful, thoughtful, and autonomous. Too often the best students approach professors with “What do you want?” instead of having the background and confidence to make their own informed decisions.

As writers, then, students need ample experiences in high school with choice—choosing what texts they read and then choosing what types of writing they produce. Those choices need to be monitored and supported by the expertise of their teachers guiding them to greater and greater genre awareness grounded in the varied expectations of the disciplines: What is an Op-Ed in a newspaper and how does that differ from a Supreme Court Justice’s dissent on a ruling? What makes a poem, a poem, and how is that distinguishable from a short story? And why are there so many different citation styles?

This approach to teaching writing and increasing student agency is particularly challenging if English teachers are the primary or even sole writing teachers in a high school (teaching writing across the curriculum should be a hallmark of secondary education). But the goals noted above grounded in choice and attaining genre awareness across the disciplines do suggest English teachers must consider balancing the types of writing students produce (less literary analysis, more genre and mode/form variety) as well as moving away from teaching MLA (the citation model preferred in the humanities) only and toward raising students’ awareness of the conventionality of citing across disciplines (Why are there no citations in journalism and only hyperlinks in Web-based writing, but students have to cite for academic settings?)

Within the groundings above, then, here are some experiences that high school students need before entering college as young writers:

  • A balance of prompted reading and writing with choice reading and writing.
  • Numerous and extended experiences with writing workshop and multiple-draft essays that receive both teacher and peer feedback. Students need to expect feedback, to embrace drafting, and to know how to respond to feedback in the revision process.
  • Experiences with a wide range of research-based writing that incorporates a variety of citation styles (including hyperlinks as a form of citation).
  • Experiences with writing beyond traditional text-only communication (images, embedded video, etc., with academic purpose).
  • Awareness of the larger concepts of effective writing (coherence, for example), of a sophisticated understanding of the “essay” form (beyond the five-paragraph essay and the narrow thesis sentence), and of the conventionality of grammar, mechanics, and usage (beyond seeing surface features as “rules”). I recommend Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Williams and Bizup) as an effective resource for these broader and more complex approaches to writing and language.

Purposefulnessrichness, and variety are the key concepts that guide me as I seek ways to prepare students for successful college writing. So for one of the initial sessions of my writing-intensive first year seminar, I ask students to brainstorm “rules” they learned in high school that they cannot do in essays, and then we unpack that list (for example, no fragments or never use “I”) to discover that many writers in fact do those taboo things. I help them begin to see that, for example, when a student’s writing is marked for a fragment, the problem is often that the student was unaware of the fragment, had not used the fragment with purpose or intent.

But we also need to confront the negatives—both what students should not do and what expectations college professors have for students that we likely would prefer they did not have.

When students have experienced mostly or almost exclusively writing for A.P. literature exams or literary analysis, they fall into bad habits, such as seeing all texts as a source of identifying literary technique. When they have had their writing mostly corrected and graded (and have not received feedback designed to prompt revision), they see writing as an act of trying to avoid making mistakes.

These, for example, are bad habits that inhibit student success in college as well as presenting to professors qualities often rewarded in high school but discouraged in college.

Another foundational exercise I do with first year students in my writing seminar is identify behaviors that students do that are unlike how people behave outside of school, and then I narrow that discussion to how do students as writers act in ways unlike how professional writers act (and concurrently, we compare “the student essay” with an “authentic essay”).

I then explain to them that my first year seminar is about learning not to act like a student anymore, but to become a writer, and specifically, to become a scholar who writes.

I believe students can begin to learn this lesson before college, as well, and I also think students must be armed with an understanding of the expectations they’ll face in college that are, to be blunt, misguided.

What do college professors want from incoming high school graduates? Too often, professors want students to already know and be able to do those things that many of us would argue are still the job of professors to teach—and in the context of writing, college professors often want students to be grammatically finished before they enter college.

There remains in higher education a narrow and misguided attitude toward surface features and “correctness.” Of course, high school teachers need to address surface features (grounded in the students’ writing), but students as writers will continue to grow in that awareness throughout college and their lives. To be direct, grammatical awareness is simply not something a human can “finish.”

Students need to develop a healthy understanding of language, but also have an awareness that many people continue to judge others based on grammar, mechanics, and usage (see Weaver’s table on status marking, pp. 112-114). Ultimately, and as a college professor myself, I would argue that college professors want students who appreciate and love learning and language, students who have had rich and varied experiences as readers and writers. Students who have confidence in their own voices and ideas along with a balancing humility that they have much left to learn are a joy to teach and are likely to thrive in college.

But I end by noting that high school teachers must not feel burdened to do everything and high school students cannot be expected to be “finished” as prerequisites for entering college. What work left to be done, I think, is a better coordination between high schools and colleges in terms of what it means to be a writer in academic settings, which, I think, is the goal both levels share.

For me, I would prefer dropping the need to ask students to set aside lessons learned about writing in high school as part of continuing in college their journey as scholars and young people who write. And above are some of they ways in which we can all make that happen.

[1] See also Genre Study.

CALL for Chapter Proposals: Adaptation as Investigations: Critically Rethinking Medium, Genre, and Text

Series: Youth Culture and Pedagogy in the 21st Century

William Reynolds and Brad Porfilio, editors

Lexington Books

Proposed volume title:

Adaptation as Investigations: Critically Rethinking Medium, Genre, and Text

P. L. Thomas, editor

[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Throughout the 1980s, music fans began to debate music videos as the popularity of MTV increased. Those debates often involved arguments about both the film quality of each video and whether or not the adaptation of song to video remained true to the original song.

As pop culture, music videos created a text for students to investigate media and genre as well as their own reading, re-reading, writing, and re-rewriting of the world. As Johns (2008) explains, students as both readers and writers need to gain genre awareness—in their roles as students but also in their emerging agency and autonomy. Text adaptations—multiple text versions across media and forms developing from one foundational text (see here for examples)—are ideal contexts for investigating how medium, genre, form, creator, and audience all interact to create meaning(s).

This volume seeks chapters that begin with an adaptation unit (texts across media and genres) in order to investigate medium, genre, form, reading, writing, text, and voice as elements of critical literacy. Chapter authors will be encouraged to investigate boundaries of texts and media by confronting texts such as traditional print texts, film, comics/graphic novels, songs, web-based texts, and emerging forms as they are represented in text adaptations (for example, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a traditional novel adapted into film and graphic novel).

Chapters should address the following points of emphasis:

  • The role of critical literacy in the broader focus on literacy in formal schooling.
  • The traditional assumptions about text as they are challenged and reshaped by a wide-range of media and genres.
  • School-based assumptions about reading and writing as they contrast with pop culture representations of reading and writing.
  • Traditional norms of “literary” texts as those inform and marginalize popular texts (among a wide range of media).
  • The tensions created when an original text is adapted or re-booted and how those multiple forms investigate “quality” texts in terms of remaining true to the original and as unique texts.
  • How adaptation, allusion, fan fiction, and sampling (for example) complicate traditional views of plagiarism and citation in formal academic settings (as opposed to pop culture).
  • How adaptation and collaborative texts (film, comics/graphic novels) confront text analysis and “ownership” of texts.
  • The role of the New Media (blogging, Twitter, etc.) in understanding text, reading, and writing as well as medium and genre.

Interested chapter authors are invited to submit proposals and the following information by May 31, 2014 (an initial list of contributors is needed before a contract can be issued):

  • 300-word proposal with title.
  • 50-75 word author(s) bio.
  • 10 key words.
  • Preferred deadline for first full draft ( a final timeline for the project will be designed once proposals have been accepted).

Preliminary plans are for including about 15 chapters of 6000-7000 words. Citations will be in the most recent edition of APA.

Send proposals and any queries to


Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Johns, A M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest. Language Teaching, 41(2): 237-252.

Thomas, P. L. (in-press). Adventures in adaptation: Confronting texts in a time of standardization. In P. Paugh, T. Kress, & R. Lake, eds., Critical and new literacies: Teaching towards democracy with/in/through post-modern and popular culture texts. TBD.

Thomas, P. L. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.

Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing

As of April 24, 2014, I am tired to the core of writing about the Common Core because I know three things:

  1. I’ve said everything I need to say about Common Core: (a) Arguing about the quality of the CC standards is a distraction from the essential flaw in continuing to chase better standards and tests, (b) because accountability based on standards and tests has never and will never address directly the equity problem in society and education, and (c) thus, education reform must drop the accountability paradigm and seek an alternative reform plan based on equity.
  2. Almost no one of consequence is listening to the rational and evidence-based criticisms of Common Core because of the political advantage afforded by keeping everyone convinced that the debate is mostly by loonies on the Right and loonies on the Left.
  3. And still, I feel compelled to try once again.

The discussion should focus, then, not on the quality of the Common Core or if and how those standards are being implemented, but on the very clear evidence of two things:

  1. The Common Core is a corporate-political movement designed from the beginning to disregard K-12 expertise in teaching and content.
  2. That movement also focused from the very beginning not on teaching and learning, but testing.

Since much of my argument depends on evidence and concerns about the lack of attention to the evidence, let me simply offer three places for you to consider my claims above:

  1. David Coleman is on the record, joking about the lack of expertise among those designing the Common Core; please listen.
  2. Mercedes Schneider has detailed carefully Those 24 Common Core 2009 Work Group Members.
  3. And if you need a wealth of evidence, please explore the Common Core Criticisms wiki.

If anyone is rational and diligent in examining the evidence, the only conclusion that stands before us is that the Common Core movement was never about teaching and learning, but always about testing.

And thus, as I have argued before, the Common Core debate cannot be separated from the high-stakes testing debate.

I begin this post with the date because—unless the zombie apocalypse happens—I invite anyone to return here in about 10 years when we are once again on the standards and testing Merry-Go-Round, with “better” standards and tests being championed by those decrying the failure of the Common Core movement. And that next round of advocates will be eerily similar to the list Schneider details above, mostly people who have a stake in wide-scale testing of children as a profit mechanism on the back of taxpayers in the U.S.

Kind of makes one hope for the zombie apocalypse

Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

Michelle Morrissey makes a case for Common Core in By ‘Common,’ We Mean Equity:

When the Common Core State Standards emerged, it was both a shock and a revelation — for the first time, the dominant model said that my students, who live in low-income neighborhoods and are predominately Hispanic or African American, would have some guarantee of the same kinds of educational experiences that students at high-performing schools across the country have. All students would be asked to do the hard stuff—and reap the benefits of those high expectations.

Setting aside the inaccurate hyperbole (“for the first time”) and that every single round of standards embraced in the U.S. since the 1890s has come with the exact same set of claims (and then has always failed, thus a new round of “better” standards), the fundamental problem with chasing better standards is that standards may achieve equality, but not equity.

Standards and equality are both about sameness; equity is about fairness and justice:

Equity vs. Equality

If seeking that all students learn and do the same things is actually a valuable goal (and I doubt that is), we must first insure equity. In other words, we are implementing the wrong policies and failing to first address the lingering racial and social inequities facing children.

Standards, as I have discussed before, are not correlated in any way with increasing student achievement or with equity, as Mathis reports:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. …

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

In the U.S., we have a blind spot to the inequity of privilege, but often have knee-jerk reactions that misinterpret efforts to achieve equity with “giving things away” to the disadvantaged.

Not unrelated is the political and public rejection of affirmative action, specifically race-based college admission policies.

But as privileged leaders and the public champion ending race-based college admission policies as a win for equality (everyone judged the same), virtually no one raises a peep about wealthy and connected teenagers entering colleges as legacy because we fail to see the inequity of privilege (see Justice Sotomayor’s dissent).

Common Core, or any set of standards, may achieve equality, but never equity, and as long as standards remain linked directly to high-stakes testing—which remains deeply biased by race, class, and gender—all standards movements will in fact perpetuate inequity.

No Country for Young Children of Color

While I have argued that we basically do not like children in the U.S., there is considerable evidence that being born a child of color puts those children at a disadvantage relative to white children.

Based on the Kids Count report, Race for Results, Smriti Sinha has declared:

Black families pondering a move to the Midwest might want to read this, especially if they have young children. According to a national report, Wisconsin has been ranked the worst state in the country when it comes to racial disparities for children.

But the entire U.S. does not fare well in terms of addressing the needs faced by children of color.

“Opportunity has been a constant theme in our country’s narrative, beginning with the waves of immigrants who arrived from across the globe in search of a better life,” the report begins, adding, “Last year, for the first time, more children of color were born in the United States than white children” (p. 1).

Opportunity, then, in the future of the U.S. will be increasingly multi-racial, but access to opportunity does not have to remain a race, a competition among those races.

Yet, children who happen to be born white in the U.S., and especially if they are born affluent, start well ahead in the so-called race of life.

Social inequity remains grounded significantly in race and class, as measured in 12 indicators in The Race for Results Index (see p. 6):

12 indicators of The Race for Results Index

[click to enlarge]

Broadly, the report finds:

As the national data show, no one group has all children meeting all milestones. African-American, American Indian and Latino children face some of the biggest obstacles on the pathway to opportunity. As Figure 2 illustrates, Asian and Pacific Islander children have the highest index score at 776, followed by white children at 704. Scores for Latino (404), American Indian (387) and African-American (345) children are considerably lower. (p. 8)

Index scores by race

[click to enlarge]

While the overall inequity for African American and Latino/a children [1] is nation-wide, many states—often high-poverty and high-minority states (such as my home state of SC)—rank low in childhood opportunity for children of color:

state by state Afican American

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state by state Latino/a

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The report concludes with four recommendations:


Gather and analyze racial and ethnic data to inform all phases of programs, policies and decision making….


Use data and impact assessment tools to target investments to yield the greatest impact for children of color….


Develop and implement promising and evidence-based programs and practices focused on improving outcomes for children and youth of color….


Integrate economic inclusion strategies within economic and workforce development efforts….(pp. 22-28)

Ultimately, the report argues:

As profound demographic shifts, technological advances and changes in global competition race toward us, no individual can afford to ignore the fact that regardless of our own racial background or socioeconomic position, we are inextricably interconnected as a society. We must view all children in America as our own — and as key contributors to our nation’s future. (p. 28)

As I have stated about the paradox of race, the U.S. is neither a post-racial country, nor should that be our goal. Along with genuinely acting as if “they’re all our children,” we must see race as a part of an equitable society and set aside reducing life to a race to the top that must sacrifice some for the good of a few.

[1] This post focuses on the racial dynamic of white, African American, and Latino/a since my work primarily addresses SC, where that dynamic is dominant. Not addressing the remaining ethnic groups in the report is not intended to marginalize those children or the significance of any racial minority.

REVIEW: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

For many, James Baldwin is associated with novels, fiction. But my greatest affinity for Baldwin lies with his nonfiction and his role as a public intellectual.

In the volume I co-edited, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors, chapter authors examine Baldwin as a powerful voice across genre and form. Concurrent with that volume is the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Baldwin is rarely examined as a poet so this collection is significant for those new to Baldwin as well as those who have studied and treasure his complete canon.

The slim book of poetry is inviting as a paperback—the cover an electric blue to complement the rich use of “blues” in the title—color, music, mood:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

“Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin,” the introduction by Nikky Finney, opens the collection passionately and parallels Baldwin’s own challenging persona: “Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide,” Finney warns (p. ix).

Finney introduces readers to Baldwin as well as his poetry—his sexuality and frankness central to both:

Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary 
brilliance from both the conservative black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned — never afraid to say it. (p. x)

Finney emphasizes that Baldwin always remained true to himself: “They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear” (p. xiii). Baldwin always sought Truth, compelled to speak the Truth:

In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on black and poor people….

Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry — because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves. (pp. xix, xxi)

For me, as someone drawn to Baldwin’s nonfiction and videos of his speaking, these poems fits into those contexts in ways that give his poetry a vibrancy beyond the grave.

Baldwin’s poetry is Baldwin’s voice.

“Staggerlee wonders”

A 16-page poem in four sections, this opening piece sparks, for me, Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” from Take This Hammer:

Simultaneously, “Staggerlee wonders” is deeply steeped in the U.S. of Baldwin’s lifetime and disturbingly relevant to 2014. The speaker mentions Russia, China, the Panama Canal, and Vietnam along with “Mad Charlie,” Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Mohammad Ali. But the historical, political, and pop culture references do not date the poem since Baldwin uses them as vehicles for his truth-telling.

The poem rarely strays too far from colors, or more accurately skin pigmentation. And Baldwin deftly blends slurs and dialects in the voice of the speaker who appears both of the situation as well as above the situation: the racial and social inequities of being Black in the U.S.:

I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all. (3.1-6)

As an opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders” represents Baldwin’s complexity and richness, as well as his tensions—notably his use of Biblical references bracketed with “though theology has absolutely nothing to do/ with what I am trying to say” and “But we are not talking about belief.”

This poem reveals Baldwin’s craft, his ability to be deeply personal and bound by his moments of history while speaking against and to the great questions of being human when humans fail their humanity.

David L. Ulin poses James Baldwin, poet? But of course. in his review of this new collection from Baldwin, concluding,

This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.

As National Poetry Month 2014 comes to a close and as we move toward Baldwin’s 90th birthday in August, now appears to be right for exploring Baldwin the poet.