More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

My good friend and stellar colleague, Ken Lindblom, posted Should Students’ Grades Be Lowered for Lateness?, spurring a series of Tweets about grading late work.

Ken’s thoughtful post focuses on these foundational ideas:

As an educator, I try to base my decisions on a principle of authenticity. In other words, I try to make my decisions more on real-world norms than traditional school norms. I try to ensure that I am preparing students for the world beyond school, not for school. As a result, I try to make sure that the ways in which I assess students’ work is similar to the ways in which they would be assessed in a professional situation.

There are times when a professional can absolutely not be late: grant applications, proposals for conferences/speaking, . . . I’m not sure I can come up with a third example to make a series.

But adults can be late with almost anything else: publication deadlines, job evaluations, doctor’s appointments, taxes–even most bills have a grace period.

Here I want to tease out a few ideas related to feedback on student work (artifacts of learning), grades, and late work.

Like Ken’s concern for authenticity, I tend to work from a personal and professional aversion to hypocrisy based on 18 years teaching English in a rural South Carolina public high school and then 14-plus years in a selective liberal arts university, also in SC.

I have been practicing and refining de-grading and de-testing practices for over thirty years. Let me emphasize, since I have been challenged before, I have implemented—and thus currently advocate for—de-grading and de-testing in many school contexts, including public schools (not just at the university level).

So my path to rejecting grades and tests has many stages and elements. First, I had to confront that calculating grades bound only to averages often distorts grades unfairly for students. Mean, median, and mode are all credible ways to analyze data, and among them, in formal schooling, the mean (average) is both the norm and often the weakest.

I show students this simple example; a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment would be the 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

My conclusion has been this greatly challenges the value of assigning grades because those who control the rules, control reality.

Thus, I do not assign grades to any student artifacts of learning (and I do not give traditional tests). Instead I offer feedback that supports students as they revise and resubmit those artifacts.

However, I cannot refuse to assign students grades for courses. Therefore, another distinction I have come to appreciate is the difference between grading an assignment and determining a grade for a grading period or course.

Therein lies my approach to late work, but first, let’s consider adult hypocrisy.

In my 30-plus years as an educator at nearly every level possible, I witness daily teachers and professors who fail to meet deadlines (regularly); talk, do other things (grade papers), stare at their computers/smart phones, etc., during meetings; and behave in a number of ways that they do not tolerate by students in their classes, behaviors that negatively impact students grades.

I also drive daily with adult motorists who exceed the speed limit without any punishment—as most of us have come to realize a grace zone of staying less than ten mph over that limit. In other words, the real world of rules is much fuzzier than the rules of formal schooling.

These are the behaviors I see when I am confronted with student late work.

About late work, then, I have some clear policies. First, I would never change a grade assigned to an artifact of learning that distorts the actual quality of that artifact. A “B” essay is a “B” essay regardless of when it is submitted.

As an educator, my primary concern is student learning, and I suffer no delusions that when that happens is more important than if it happens. I also ascribed to Rick Wormeli’s dictum that fair isn’t always equal; thus, I do not allow very narrow expectations that I treat all students exactly the same override that I am there to serve each student as well as all students.

Next, I always record “lateness” and then consider that when I assign a grade for a grading period or course. If a student has one or two assignments late (clearly an outlier), I may ignore that when determining the grading period/course grade, but if there is a pattern of lateness, then the grading period/course grade must reflect this.

In other words, I believe we must separate artifact quality (the basis of grading period or course grades) from grading period/course grades.

Feedback and grades on artifacts of learning send students clear messages about what they produce (their learning), and then grading period/course grades send a message about the totality of their accomplishments as students.

So if we return to Ken’s context, we can imagine a manager telling a habitually late worker: “Your work here is excellent, but if you aren’t here on time, we will have to let you go.”

Especially in the recent thirty-plus years of standards, educators have fallen prey to standardization, and as a result, we have too often abdicated our professional autonomy and allowed technical norms to supplant our much more important goals and obligations, the human dignity and learning of each child assigned to our care.

And because most people have greater regard for medical doctors than teachers (sigh), I’ll end with an example my major professor offered in my doctoral program.

A patient is admitted to the hospital running a dangerously high temperature. After several days, during all of which the nurses record that patient’s temperature hourly, the doctor comes in, adds those temperatures, calculates the average, and refuses to release the patient, although the current temperature is 98.6.

Right, no medical doctor would allow the norm of averages to override her/his medical authority. And neither should educators.

See Also

Missing Assignments–and the Real World, Nancy Flanagan

The Perils of Late Work and How to Make It Count, Starr Stackstein

It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines, Ellen Boucher 

Rejecting False Claims about Education: A Primer for Journalists

One thing (but not the only thing) I have learned about doing public work as an academic is that I am often positioned as the responder, and thus criticizing someone else’s claim. The result is that many are quick to refute my criticism as just that—so much griping—and those voices often demand that I offer some alternative, a valid response. Although I must note that in the mainstream media, I am often given only about 750 words and one shot at the topic.

Here, in the confines of my blog, however, I can take more time and come back to topics as often as I see fit. My recent examination of the dysfunctional relationship between journalists covering education and the field of education (see herehere, here, and here) cannot be complete, then, without offering both the central false claims that dominate how the media characterizes public schools and credible education reform along with evidence-based alternatives to those claims.

Below, let me outline some prominent myths and the more complicated realities about the historical and current state of public education in the U.S. and the need for a different vision of education reform in the context of long-ignored social reform.

Myth: Education is the great equalizer.

Lets start with semantics—how we make claims. As most people use “education is the great equalizer,” the claim suggests we have already accomplished this; however, in reality, educational attainment does not equalize in the context of race, social class, and gender.

A tremendous amount of evidence shows that greater educational attainment will give a person advantages within race, class, or gender, but not among race, class, and gender. As just a couple of graphic examples (see research linked above):

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access to good jobs race gender

Instead of “education is the great equalizer,” we must begin to argue “education should be the great equalizer, but we are not there yet.”

The US must, then, commit to social reform that addresses the negative influence of racism, classism, and sexism on children and adults. Concurrently, education reform must focus on equity and not accountability: access to challenging courses, access to certified and experience teachers, equitable disciplinary practices.

Myth: Teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement.

This is also where our hopes clash with realities. Teacher quality is a small percentage, about 10-15%, of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school, factors:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998;Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Research from the UK, in fact, reveals teacher quality as only one part of school quality is even a smaller fraction of what matters in student achievement:

Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.

Instead of “Teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement,” we must make a complicated case: “Teacher quality is extremely important, but nearly impossible to identify by measurable student outcomes.” And then, “social and school reform must address many influences on student achievement, most of which are outside the control of schools alone.”

As I noted above, vulnerable student populations are suffering inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers; here is an area for reform.

Myth: Private and/or charter schools outperform public schools.

These false and simplistic claims often suffer from not carefully making fair comparisons. The key here is that when raw data comparisons are used, conclusions are typically unfounded. The reality is that no type of school (public, private, charter) has proven to be superior to any other type, and all types of schools have a wide range of quality that is strongly linked to the populations of students being served. Some evidence (although this counter-claim is what the body of evidence shows):

Instead of “Private and/or charter schools outperform public schools,” we must refocus on “How do we create equitable public schools that make private and charter schools unneeded?”

This myth is difficult to separate from the next, the miracle school.

Myth: School X is a miracle school.

Possibly one of the most enduring false narratives of media coverage of education is the newest miracle school (increasingly charter or more specifically KIPP charter schools). This false narrative is compelling because on the surface, these stories in the press seem like good news; however, they fail for two reasons: first, if a miracle school existed, by its nature, that school would be an outlier, and thus not a credible model for what all or most schools should do, and second, miracle schools simply do not exist, but are the product of careful public relations and the failure of journalists to verify those PR claims.

As I noted above, schools claiming miracles or media labeling a school a miracle are likely not identifying the details that would unravel the claims: charter schools that underserve the highest poverty students, special needs students, or ELL students; private schools that are selective, and public schools that may appear highly effective when focusing on some data, but exposed as typical when the full picture is examined.

Again, the key for journalists is to be skeptical of miracle claims, and do the due diligence in confirming the claims; some evidence of the false allure of miracle schools:

Instead of “school X is a miracle school,” we need to avoid seeking outliers as models for expectations for all schools, but we must also learn to offer nuanced and complex stories about the realities of all schools, pictures that are often uncomfortable.

In short, journalists should stop writing miracle school stories.

Myth: School quality is the key to our country’s economy.

This has been refuted for decades, notably by Gerald Bracey; for example, International Comparisons: More Fizzle than Fizz:

[T]est scores, at least average test scores, don’t seem to be related to anything important to a national economy. Japan’s kids have always done well, but the economy sank into the Pacific in 1990 and has never recovered. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years.

At its core, I think, this false claim about causality (better schools somehow equal a better economy) is a bigger problem than the claim.

Education journalism often fails by jumping to causal claims (using rankings as if that proves some causal link, making common-sense claims because it seems that X causes Y) when the evidence doesn’t support those arguments. Again, consider that we seem to believe private schools cause better outcomes, but in fact, private schools are able to select the sorts of students who happen to have the lives that cause those outcomes, not the school type.

Just as we must admit about teacher quality, instead of “school quality is the key to our country’s economy,” we should be arguing that improving schools by focusing on equity is important for hundreds of reasons that may or may not be directly measurable or linked to a wide variety of outcomes, such as economic stability or growth.

False narratives have endured because they are simple (simplistic), but the alternatives we need to embrace will be challenging because of their complexity.

Myth: New standards and new tests (i.e, Common Core) ask more of our students, are the key to education reform.

The blunt truth is that standards and high-stakes testing haven’t work for over three decades, and in fact, the quality or even presence of standards does not correlate with better student outcomes or greater equity in our schools.

A review of the standards-based accountability era has shown:

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 test score 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.

Further, the evidence is plentiful that standards, testing, and accountability have been ineffective:

  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?

Instead of “new standards and new tests (i.e, Common Core) ask more of our students, are the key to education reform,” we need to call for some different approach to reform, again one focusing on equity.

Another ugly truth behind the false narrative about standards is that the new standards/new tests churn has benefitted the education market, but not students or the public.

Myth: School choice works and parents deserve choices.

Both of these false claims speak, again, to what many in the US hope for, but not what exists. In other words, “choice” triggers for most people our faith in freedom, but in the free market and public education, “choice” is a complicated and misleading term.

First, school choice advocates have been shifting their claims and promises for several decades now—when each promise fails, a new one is offered. And second, particularly focusing on parental choice, choice advocacy fails from idealizing the mechanism.

School choice suffers a similar pattern to the myth above about private, charter and public schools: school choice advocates tend to issue PR reports that have not been peer-reviewed, journalists cover those PR accounts uncritically but do not report when the claims are refuted in reviews, and school choice must be examined by making fair comparisons (funding, populations of students, etc.).

While school choice hasn’t produced higher student outcomes, or any of the many promises advocates offer, we do have some outcomes worth considering. School choice contributes to segregation.

The wealth of research on school choice is staggering, but that is even more troubling since it overwhelmingly does not support the typical positive spin found in the media. Some evidence includes:

Instead of “school choice works and parents deserve choices,” we need to set aside our idealism about choice, and recommit to the power and importance of strong public institutions, not as a dangerous alternative to the free market but as necessary for the free market to work for everyone.

In short, market dynamics such as choice are not universally powerful or effective, especially in endeavors serving the public good such as universal public education. As well, we must admit that rejecting school choice as a mechanism for school reform is not somehow an attack on the autonomy of families or parents.

Beyond rejecting the myths noted above—and many others (such as the daft “money doesn’t matter”)—journalists need to step back from business as usual in terms of how pubic schools are examined and whose voices matter in that discussion.

Practices such as ranking need to stop, and ways to increase educators’ voices in that discussion must be explored.

As I have detailed above, the media is too often trapped in what we wish were true instead of the harsh realities we continue to face. For that reason, I remain committed to calling for a critical free press.

Recommended Reading for Education Journalists

Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically SnookeredGerald W Bracey

Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan

MLK Day 2016: A Reader

In the US in 2016—and specifically for educators—the need to confront racism must remain central to all efforts to overcome inequity and injustice. Among the privileged—white-, male-, heterosexual-skewed—there is no room for “yes, but,” although there remains ample room for stepping back, being silent, and then listening as first steps to offering solidarity in the action needed to confront the false narratives of “meritocracy” and “rugged individualism,” and then to overcome the irrefutable inequities linked to race, class, gender, and sexuality.

One commitment is to resist the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical. So here, I offer some readings, varied and important, but pathways to honoring the radical MLK and to resisting the lingering dream deferred.

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” (1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK poverty

The Trumpet of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Haley’s fairy tale ignores our history

haleyEnslaved Africans of George Washington Depicted as ‘Happy and Joyful’ in New Children’s Book

The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr., Matt Berman

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christian Radical—And Saint, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Read This Before Co-Opting MLK Jr., Jose Vilson

The Revisionist’s Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream For Most Of Us,” Jose Vilson

Harlem, Langston Hughes

Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes

The white man pathology: inside the fandom of Sanders and Trump, Stephen Marche

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment, Dick Startz

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“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies CurriculumThomas Dee, Emily Penner

Questioning Payne | Teaching Tolerance

Toolkit for “Questioning Payne” | Teaching Tolerance

50 Years After Selma, White Lives Still Matter More, Stacey Patton

The Oscars’ Racist Refusal to Honor Modern Black Heroes, Stereo Williams

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

The Martian: Allegory of Whose Lives Matter

Nicolas Sparks and the Allegory of Pretty White People Who Struggle until Everything Works Out

James Baldwin: “the time is always now”

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More Lessons on the Journalist/ Educator Divide

During my recent round of confronting the failures of mainstream media and journalists covering US public education (see here, here, and here), I have had some of my worst fears confirmed, but have also discovered a few new lessons.

I was disappointed to read some Tweets that suggested that the reason journalists do not include more (or usually any) teacher voices is the fault of educators: teachers not willing to go on record, teachers failing to meet the journalist’s deadline.

This deflecting of professional responsibility and blame prove my central point that journalists simply do not understand education well enough to cover it adequately or fairly.

K-12 public school teachers are increasingly losing any semblance of job security—one aspect of which is the traditional charge that teachers not be political, not be advocates in the public realm. Journalists must have a greater sense of awareness and compassion for those conditions, and then seek ways to make it possible for teachers to be a major part of the public discussion about education.

An alternative, however, that I often present is that there is no absence of professors and researchers who are able to speak publicly while also having a much higher level of expertise in the many topics around education than think tank leaders, elected officials, political appointees, billionaire edu-hobbyists, and self-proclaimed edu-reformers and edu-leaders.

Another lesson involves the sheer complexity of educational problems and educational research (see here). Journalists are drawn to presenting complex issues in accessible ways for a lay audience (a legitimate concern), but what has happened in the coverage of education is that journalists overwhelmingly are using sources who start with the simplistic and oversimplified (“education is the great equalizer” [untrue], “teacher quality is the most important factor in student success” [untrue], “public education is in crisis” [untrue], “poverty is not an excuse” [baldfaced ugly assertion]) that significantly distort both the problems in education and the solutions.

As well, as I have documented often, journalists are prone to reporting uncritically on aggressively promoted reports (typically form think tanks, but increasingly from departments in universities funded by billionaire edu-reformers) that have not yet been vetted by the peer-review process; and then fail to follow up when reviews often find many flaws with the reports and their claims.

However, I have also had a couple encouraging experiences.

One journalist emailed me with a wonderfully positive and self-reflective response to my work. If there is one journalist who takes the time to consider authentically these concerns, I feel optimistic there are more.

As well, I have recently viewed a brief documentary by Lena Jackson, whose Crenshaw is an outstanding examination of education, Day in the Life – Gustavo Lopez, MA & Credential Urban Education & Social Justice:

I am left after viewing this work convinced that fore-fronting teachers’ voices is not only important, but possible—if the will to examine education is sincere and critical.

I am currently skeptical that many journalists covering education are either sincere or critical.

“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

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On Professionalism and Good Intentions: More on Education and Journalism

While journalist Nichole Dobo has not corresponded with me since I posted Dear Journalists Covering Education, Let Me Explain, Dobo has posted a Tweet I believe deserves additional consideration:

Dobo’s insistence that her professionalism be respected (which I support fully) raises a key aspect of my concern for how journalists tend to cover education.

Like Dobo, Stephen Sawchuk, a top education journalist for Education Week, bristled at being criticized for education coverage, characterizing the challenges as “pretty offensive.”

Here, then, I am being sincere when I ask: How is the constant and unwarranted drumbeat about “bad teachers,” “failing schools,” and “education crisis” treating educators as professionals? How is the overwhelming lack of seeking teachers and educators as sources in education journalism treating educators as professionals?

Shouldn’t teachers treat journalists as professionals and journalists treat teachers as professionals? Doesn’t our democracy need the professionalism of both journalists and educators?

I taught high school English for about two decades in a rural South Carolina public school, including several years when I also had achieved my doctorate in education while remaining a high school teacher.

During those years, the best I could manage in many efforts to reach into the media were a few letters to the editor.

Once I was in higher education, however, I was given access to Op-Eds as well as frequent interviews by TV and print journalists.

What message does that send?

For both educators and journalists, demanding our professionalism be respected and having good intentions are not enough if we are not extending that same level of respect into the areas we claim to have those good intentions.

To be perfectly honest, education journalism has significantly failed to extend respect to educators—for decades.

The entire accountability era is built on the premise that schools are not effective because teachers simply do not try hard enough, that education lacks the proper incentives (usually negative) to demand the hard work needed for schools to excel.

The “bad teacher” mantra that has risen during the Obama presidency, and the increase of calls for and uses of value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers both further de-professionalize and demonize teachers—and the great majority of education journalism has embraced, not refuted, these.

And as I have already noted, the favorite meme of education journalism remains (for over 150 years) that education is in crisis.

How would journalists feel if “journalism is in crisis” was the primary and initial given about their field, for a century and a half? [1] Does that honor your professionalism? Especially if you have little or no power over your field, especially if your voice is nearly muted from the discussion?

Today, in 2016, the imbalance of treating professionals as professionals tips against journalists covering education.

What does it say to teachers when mainstream education journalists are quoting one think tank leader with no experience in education (and a degree in a field that is not education) more than all the quoting of classroom teachers combined?

You may be offended by this, but I offer it because I respect the field of journalism and agree journalists should be afforded the highest respect as professionals: Journalists covering education have not treated my profession, education, as a profession.

Of all professions, however, I believe educators and journalists need each other, need both to be honored professions.

I eagerly await journalists covering education to join educators in that solidarity.

See Also

Flunking the Test, Paul Farhi

[1] Please note how many journalists respond when a lowly blogger simply challenges them based on evidence and my own expertise in both fields.

8 January 2016: “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”

Blade Runner is a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The film is my favorite film, although the adaptation is quite distinct from the novel—also a wonderful work itself.

Today, 8 January 2016, marks the birth of replicant Roy:

Roy

Roy’s final monologue is a powerful and currently relevant statement, notably— “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”:

The use of androids-as-slaves as a metaphor for the human condition is also in the science fiction section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

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wage slaves

(from Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?)

Another brilliant, but ignored, science fiction examination of our slavery to time is Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), a powerful confrontation of how capitalism turns most people frantic so that a few can live in luxury.

When science fiction is set in the future relative to the publication or release of the original work, rarely is the work intended to be predictive—but often, the work is intended to tell us important things about the human condition and any now by taking us to places that seem unlike our now.

Roy as an enlightened android—more enlightened than the humans who created him to be a slave—ends his haunting monologue with “Time to die.”

I think this is intended so that we seek ways to live better, freer.

Enjoy the four-disc collector’s edition of Blade Runner.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also is available as a graphic novel series.

What Football Reveals for Education about False Allure of Quantification

If you want to understand the inherent complexity of professional football, you may want to start with a person with a long and rich career in the sport. For example, consider “Super Bowl-winning former Ravens coach Brian Billick” responding to the rise of metrics and statistics in the NFL:

“One of the most common questions I get is, Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL? And the answer is, No, you can’t,” Billick said. “You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they’re doing in conjunction with one another.”

The collaborative and human (although not humane) elements of football, it appears, render the power of statistics less predictive—and less useful—in the sport than in baseball.

One lesson, then, seems to be that statistics are not universally valid and predictive, particularly in contexts that are highly complex.

I am reminded of the post-Katrina analysis of the pre-landfall models for the massive hurricane. That image of hundreds of models was a nightmare of confusion, lending little in valuable predictive information for anyone.

The post-Katrina data on just what did occur, however, were fascinating and powerful.

Since the U.S. cares more about the NFL than public education, Billick’s skepticism and warnings are likely to be better heeded than decades of similar warnings from teachers about the rise of measurable data (mostly high-stakes test scores) in evaluating students, teachers, and schools.

In education, the tug-of-war continues, and I fear, those of us siding wth Billick in the context of education are not fairing well.

See this report advocating more metrics in teacher quality pursuits, Smart, Skilled, and Striving: Transforming and Elevating the Teaching Profession, and then a review, mostly discrediting the report as the abstract notes:

This report from the Center for American Progress offers 10 recommendations for improving the public perceptions of and experiences of classroom teachers. While elements of these recommendations would likely be beneficial, they also include policy changes that would increase surveillance of teachers, reduce teachers’ job security, evaluate teachers by students’ test scores, and create merit pay systems that would likely have the opposite effect. For evidence, the report relies too heavily on popular rhetoric, sound bites, opinion articles, and advocacy publications to advance a policy agenda that in many ways could do further harm to the teaching profession. However, many of the report’s recommendations do align with policy reforms currently being proposed for the Higher Education Act and included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorizations and are therefore important to read critically and consider carefully. In advancing evaluation of teachers by test scores, the report goes against the cautions and guidelines recently released by the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association. Other than a review of contemporary issues, the report offers little of substance to advance the teaching profession.

Let’s hold our collective breaths about which will win out. Any predictions?

Dear Journalists Covering Education, Let Me Explain

In my Twitter timeline, I saw a post praising a recent New York Times article on graduation rates and the devalued high school diploma. Since I had written a blog criticizing the many (and typical) flaws in the piece, I nudged Stephanie Banchero and Nichole Dobo to reconsider.

Dobo was gracious enough to respond [1], but Twitter really doesn’t afford the space to make my case as well as both the topic and Dobo deserve so I want here to lay out better just exactly why so many of us in education are routinely frustrated with how media cover education.

Let me start by reemphasizing why educators have moved from frustrated to exasperated in terms of media coverage of public education.

In the mid-1800s as public schools became a more compelling option for education in the U.S., Catholic schools initiated scathing attacks on public schools—not for educational, but for market reasons.

The history of vilifying public education in the U.S. has replicated that pattern until today—although the negative drumbeat has intensified significantly over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability (which is mostly a political, not an educational, venture).

Therefore, most political and media commentary on public education is misguided. Yes, most.

The problem for educators is not that public education is without flaws and is being unfairly demonized, but that we in the U.S. have mostly failed public education (and our students, and our country) by continuing to wallow in false narratives while ignoring the very real problems in both our education system and society that warrant reform.

My argument is that since most political leaders and political appointees governing education as well as most journalists covering education are without educational experience or expertise, these compelling but false narratives are simply recycled endlessly, digging the hole deeper and deeper.

Compounding that problem is the overwhelming evidence that journalists covering education disproportionately turn to people outside the field of education as their sources [2].

Think tank advocacy masquerading as research (rarely peer-reviewed) garners sensational headlines [3] while psychologists, economists, and political scientists are quoted about every aspect of education.

And on the rare occasion that I am interviewed by a journalist, I can predict what will happen: the journalist is always stunned by what I offer, typically challenging evidence-based claims because they go against the compelling but false narratives.

No, there is no positive correlation between educational quality and any country’s economy.

No, teacher quality is actually dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of student achievement.

No, charter and private schools are not superior to public schools.

No, school choice has not worked, except to re-segregate schools.

No, merit pay does not work, and is something teachers do not want. Teachers are far more concerned about their autonomy and working conditions.

No, standards do not work—never have—and high-stakes testing is mostly a reflection of children’s lives, not their teachers or their schools.

This list could go on, but I think I have made my point.

Now let me offer what I think is possibly the best example of the problem—reporting of the SAT.

For decades, the College Board reported SAT scores, ranking states by their average score. The media participated then in the annual bashing of schools based on those rankings.

Eventually, the College Board conceded that such rankings are deeply flawed since among the states, the percentages of students taking the test make those comparisons/rankings invalid—and the SAT is not designed to measure the quality of schools in a state (the SAT is designed only to predict first year college success and does so slightly worse that GPA).

Thus, the College Board issued a notice [4] and began releasing state SAT scores alphabetically. However, the media persist in the bashing.

Another problem with journalists covering education is a journalism problem: seeking to address “both sides” of issues in order to appear fair and balanced.

Therefore, I have invoked the Oliver Rule because that practice too often is not being objective and mostly distorts (as John Oliver brilliantly exposes about climate change) the real balance between the credible and the baseless.

Some, possibly many, issues simply do not have two sides, and often within fields—while there remains debate—issues have such an overwhelming body of evidence supporting a stance that posing the topic as “debatable” is terribly flawed. Framing an issue with someone who is credible and someone who is not fails reporting and the public.

For example, I struggled with the media about corporal punishment recently because the topic simply has only one side (corporal punishment is overwhelmingly harmful), yet every journalist sought both sides for the reporting. This was replicated when I addressed grade retention as well.

Since the U.S. suffers under the delusion that mainstream media is liberal (it isn’t), I must stress that even the so-called liberal New York Times, NPR, and even Education Week are more apt to misrepresent education than swim against the compelling but false narratives.

As I have examined (and had reaffirmed with NPR once again covering Sal Khan as if he is a credible educator in recent days), NPR follows the patterns I have detailed above when covering “grit.”

Where education journalism thrives is in the New Media (blogging) and alternative media (AlterNet, Truthout, The Conversation). In fact, note that Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet (a blog at the Washington Post) is far superior to the print education reporter Jay Mathews, who works within the false narratives about education.

So to return to Dobo’s engaging with me about my concerns.

Dobo and I share something important: we want to defend our professions because they both matter mightily. On that, I agree with Dobo and respect her integrity and her field.

To her challenges to my claims, I want to clarify that, yes, I do believe education journalism would be greatly improved if journalists covering education had expertise and experience in the field.

I have been a coach, and also believe coaches are better when they have played the game they are coaching.

But, my main contention is that currently and historically almost all the politicians governing education, pundits pontificating on education, and journalists covering education have little or no experience or expertise in the field.

My modest proposal is that most should—but certainly not all.

And then, more directly, I also must stress that the real problem with education journalism is that the sources of education coverage in the media are the same talking heads without experience or expertise—think tank leaders, edupreneurs, education hobbyists (mostly millionaires and billionaires), anyone except educators.

Few people are more critical of my field of education than I am so my real concern is that journalism is failing the real reform needed in schools because of the experience and expertise vacuum in the media covering education.

Education needs a critical media, journalists who resist the false but compelling crisis narratives being recycled by politicians.

It is well past time, I think, for everyone who wants to understand education to try asking a teacher. And then listening when what we explain goes against conventional wisdom.

See Also

Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, Rebecca J. Rosen

[1] The conversation, in part, included:

Dobo Twitter 1

Dobo Twitter 2

[2] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar. And REPORT: Only 9 Percent Of Guests Discussing Education On Evening Cable News Were Educators:

cable-education-overall

[3] Consider this press release from the Center for American Progress (CAP), with prompting at the end to talk with their experts, and this review, discrediting the report praised in the press release. The CAP report speaks to the false narratives, and thus, is poised to resonate with political leaders and the media—while the review is likely to garner little attention.

[4] The College Board warns: “Educators, the media and others…[s]hould not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on the basis of aggregate scores derived from tests that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students.”

A New Year’s Reader

Spanking children slows cognitive development and increases risk of criminal behavior, expert says

[See also The Stream: Should parents spare the spank]

On the Impossibility of Teaching Creative Writing, Tara Skurtu

[See also Teaching the Unteachable, Kurt Vonnegut; Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?]

New education law: a lot of suds, William Mathis

[See also Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation]

A Lecture From the Lectured, John Barone, Cassandra Chaplinsky, Taylor Ehnle, John Heaney, Riley Jackson, Zoe Kaler, Rachael Kossy, Benjamin Lane, Thomas Lawrence, Jessica Lee, Sarah Lullo, Kevin McCammack, Daniel Seeder, Carly Smith, and Demetrius Wade

Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick? Vicki Abeles

School Vouchers and Student Achievement: First-Year Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship ProgramAtila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher R. Walters

vouchers LA

The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy, Yawo Brown

To the White Parents of my Black Son’s Friends

The Moynihan Report ResurrectedSam Klug