“A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution” Is 50% Wrong

In her The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers yet another post about the current Reading War/Crisis: A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution.

Strauss explains before offering the long post:

This is an unusual post about the “reading wars,” that seemingly never-ending battle about how to best teach reading to students — systematic phonics or whole language. This argues that both sides have it wrong, and the authors, two brothers who are literacy experts, suggest a new way.

While this is a provocative, often nuanced, and compelling, it makes a fatal flaw common in the seemingly never-ending false war between phonics and whole language by misdefining whole language and then failing to take care when citing research that seems to show neither systematic phonics nor whole language are more effective than the other.

First, let me offer an example of this type of failure in a slightly different context, the powerful and complicated work of Lisa Delpit.

Delpit has made for many years a strong case about the inequity of educational opportunities that cheat black students (as well as many other vulnerable populations). At times, Delpit’s work has been co-opted by traditional advocates for education—notably those calling for intensive phonics and isolated grammar instruction.

Here, Delpit make a very direct refuting of that sort of co-opting:

I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

However, the sources of why Delpit came to confront how formal education often cheats black students is an important window into why many continue to misrepresent the Reading War/Crisis by defining incorrectly whole language (or balanced literacy).

As Delpit explains:

A doctoral student of my acquaintance was assigned to a writing class to hone his writing skills. The student was placed in the section led by a white professor who utilized a process approach, consisting primarily of having the students write essays and then assemble into groups to edit each other’s papers. That procedure infuriated this particular student. He had many angry encounters with the teacher about what she was doing. …

When I told this gentleman that what the teacher was doing was called a process method of teaching writing, his response was, ‘Well, at least now I know that she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’ This sense of being cheated can be so strong that the student may be completely turned off to the educational system.

Yes, this teacher and experience had clearly failed that doctoral student, but if we are careful to note the details of that failure, what we discover is that the teacher had also failed process (or workshop) writing instruction.

Process or workshop writing instruction is far more that peer conferencing; it entails drafting and student choice of topics and text form, conferences with peers and the instructor, explicit instruction of all aspects of composing (including grammar, mechanics, and usage) based on the needs of the students revealed in their original essay drafts (typically called mini-lessons), careful and varied reading-like-a-writer experiences with rich texts, and producing final authentic artifacts or writing.

To be brief here, Delpit is correct that “other people’s children” are disproportionately cheated by reduced curriculum and inadequate instruction, but it is misleading to lay that blame at the feet of process/workshop methods since the student example shows this is not what was implemented.

Now, let’s circle back to the “both sides are wrong” claim by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Peter N. Bowers.

Bowers and Bowers discredit systematic phonics fairly carefully and fairly,  I think. But when they turn to the research on whole language, they make no effort to verify if the research cited in fact confirmed that whole language was being implemented with any level of fidelity.

As I have noted often in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim [1], noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language.

As well, Bowers and Bowers make an odd choice about defining what whole language is by citing and defining as follows:

According to foundational theory for whole language, learning to read is just like learning to speak (Goodman, 1967). Given that virtually everyone from every culture learns to speak without any formal instruction in a context of being exposed to meaningful speech, it is concluded that children should learn to read in the same way, naturally, by reading meaningful text. The fact that not all verbal children learn to read with whole language should be a first clue that something is wrong with this theory.

This dramatically over-simplifies Goodman’s work, but also ignores decades of refinement of what whole language became, and then how many have embraced balanced literacy.

When we are referring to whole language, however, the fundamental problem with discounting whole language often rests with not understanding what it is: “Whole language is not a program, package, set of materials, method, practice, or technique; rather, it is a perspective on language and learning that leads to the acceptance of certain strategies, methods, materials, and techniques.—Dorothy Watson, 1989.”

And a failure to acknowledge that “… [w]hole language…builds on the view that readers and writers integrate all available information in authentic literacy events as they make sense of print. Whole language teachers don’t reject phonics; they put it in its proper place [emphasis added]” (K. Goodman, Phonics Phacts, p. 108).

Let me put this directly: Whole language does reject the need for systematic phonics for all children, but the language philosophy endorses entirely that some phonics is needed, that each child should receive the amount and type of phonics instruction needed to read independently—not to comply with a reading program, to cover a set of universal standards, or to raise test scores.

The argument posed by Bowers and Bowers is correct only if we misdefine whole language and fail to critically examine research that claims to be measuring whole language effectiveness or if whole language was even implemented with any sort of fidelity.

As it sits now, the Bowers and Bowers’s argument is 50% wrong.


[1] Note that the reading test score decreases (the reason for the claim of a reading crisis) were caused mostly by a large influx of non-native English speaking students and drastic budget cuts for education. The ways in which students were being taught to read are correlations at best with those scores.

For Further Reading

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen, Reading Improvement 39 (1): 32-42, 2002.

Facts: On the nature of whole language education (Heinemann)

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Worksheets? We Talking about Worksheets

A few days ago, I had an Allen Iverson moment on Twitter:

Iverson, among many other athletic and pop culture accomplishments, is notorious for this rant:

“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

What resonates with me, after I posted the retweet above, is that Iverson was almost entirely misunderstood, and received a fair among of negative feedback and is often still misrepresented by his outburst.

Once I realized that my critical list had gained a momentum of its own—many people responding positively to my intent, but a few creeping into viewing my Tweet as a burn—I noticed that some people found the Tweet to be unprofessional in tone and misread my point as somehow being against students having fun or oversimplifying the problem with worksheets.

To attempt to set the record straight, and try to calm the piling on that I did not intend, I posted a thread navigating the misunderstandings and concerns about my tone and points.

For the record, I am firmly against worksheets (although what that label means needs some interrogation, I admit), and for authentic (even fun) engagement by students with whole and real learning and artifacts of learning. But that is really complicated.

A former student and then early-career teacher, who has now left teaching, had a disturbing experience with why this position of mine is complicated. She taught in a school grounded in project-based learning (PBL). Her course was also team-taught.

As an English teacher, however, she was frustrated that she was required to prepare lessons and activities for students that were a series of different projects; notable in that requirement is that reading and writing were excluded from being the only sorts of projects students could complete.

She found herself in the sort of dilemma Lou LaBrant rejected in 1931, in one of the earliest rounds of PBL mis-attributed to John Dewey:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant’s anger lead her to this conclusion:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

When I saw the original Tweet about hiding worksheets cut into strips inside Easter eggs, I immediately thought of my former student and LaBrant.

I am certain that I could create a Jeopardy!-style game to engage students in, for example, grammar activities. I think the game itself and student engagement could likely be exciting, and anyone observing that lesson would be fairly impressed with the energy.

I may even concede that students could learn grammar during the activity—although I am skeptical of the likelihood that a one-shot activity would produce genuine and deep understanding.

Here, however, let me return to LaBrant, who wrote in 1947: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

While the Jeopardy!-style game may be successful in being fun and engaging students, I am certain that whatever grammar students may learn, we remain faced with the same reality LaBrant confronted 80-plus years ago: Isolated grammar instruction does not transfer into student practice as writers.

Therefore, we must evaluate the Jeopardy!-style grammar game based on our instructional purposes. If we are teaching grammar-for-grammar’s sake, the game may be a valid instructional strategy (compared to completing grammar worksheets, for example).

But if our goal is writing instruction, even though the game is fun and engaging, it is a waste of instructional time better spent by students drafting, conferencing, and engaging in explicit instruction covering grammar, usage, and mechanics in the context of their original writing.

For those who see the teaching of English as more than writing and reading, we may be compelled to find engaging and fun ways to bring students to literature as well.

What if I designed a Thoreau-like nature walk for students to commune with nature and come to a better understanding of American transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?

Again, this nature walk to an outside observer may appear to be very engaging and even fun for the students. But hiking in nature is not the domain of literature study; mining text for meaning, however, is what literature study entails.

Crouching in the woods or wading into a pond, like Thoreau, may help students with appreciating nature, but it is time better spent reading, discussing, and critically unpacking the essays written by Emerson and Thoreau, while also contrasting those texts with others written by their contemporaries, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once again, as LaBrant argued throughout her career, writing is learned by writing, and reading is learned by reading.

Let me circle back, now, briefly, to the worksheet.

The decade’s long appeal of PBL comes, I think, from a realization that worksheets, workbooks, and static, silent students are elements of traditional schooling most of us want to avoid.

When I think “worksheet,” I am reminded of my early days of teaching high school English and being compelled to teach context clues because our students scored low on that subset of reading skills during state testing.

As part of our mandated test-prep, we were issued workbooks with worksheets dedicated to isolated reading skills. The context clues worksheet identified four or five types of context clues and then tested students with dozens of sample sentences requiring students to identify the type of context clue strategy needed to define the unknown vocabulary.

To be honest, this approach could likely raise student test scores since the worksheets were designed to prepare students for test-reading; the worksheets and tests involve the same sort of mechanical and inauthentic process and test a manufactured set of content designated as “context clues.”

Here’s the problem: Writers don’t write implementing context clues; writers just use words to form sentences and paragraphs. Context clues strategies work on worksheets and tests, but not so much in real-world reading.

Vocabulary acquisition is incredibly important for literacy development, but most people have the how of that acquisition backward: Students don’t need words (or context clues strategies) crammed into them so they can read better; reading more and more makes them better readers, in part, because that is how we acquire more words.

My concern and caution, then, are much broader than the worksheet since both worksheets and PBL (seemingly antithetical to each other) can be flawed practice if we are not careful to match our instructional strategies to our intended learning outcomes and artifacts of learning.

At first blush, this may seem tedious, even dull, but teaching English is mostly about reading and writing. These are often engaging and fun, but some times they are also challenging and rewarding even as they are tedious.

None the less, let’s not lose sight of what we are doing in the name of fun when that pursuit, in fact, avoids the real work that we should attend to and seeks as well to insure that students are engaged and, yes, often having fun.

Gronk, The Meathead: White Privilege NFL/ESPN-Style

Like another revered white sports legend associated with Boston, Larry Bird, Rob Gronkowski has announced an athletic career cut short by a body battered from the sport that brought him fame.

Bird acquired early in his career the monicker “the Hick from French Lick” and was noted for not only his all-around basketball skills and clutch shooting but also his trash talking on the court contrasted with his mostly laconic and distant demeanor off it.

The implication about Bird included that he was smart as an athlete, but less than intellectual while in college or in the life outside of sports left mostly un-detailed.

Gronkowski, often called “Gronk,” has never been as reserved as Bird, but instead has reveled in being called out as a meathead. In fact, his retirement announcement prompted an ESPN morning show to put together a montage that highlighted Gronk, the Meathead, bragging that he hasn’t read a book since ninth grade.

For the frat-boy culture and not-so-cloaked toxic masculinity pervading ESPN, the expected responses followed with everyone laughing about Gronk misidentifying that book’s title (garbling To Kill a Mockingbird as A Mockingbird to Remember).

Gronk’s now-former team, the New England Patriots, represents a pretty disturbing mixture of sport excellence against the rust beneath the shine of championships, including very disturbing controversies—worst of which involved Gronks’ fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder.

While the talking heads of 24-hour sports find Gronk, the Meathead, hilarious, we must recall about Gronkowski: “Oh, there’s also this video of Gronk basically offering $10,000 to any couple that will have sex in front of the large group of people.”

A story not included along with a talking head sharing that Gronk once pulled a bottle of vodka from his pants at a function when he invited the ESPN host to join him for a drink.

Just good ol’ All-American fun, right?

But I think an even larger and ignored responsibility is that we should be asking if black men who are professional athletes receive the sort of tremendous boundaries Gronk is afforded as The Meathead.

Black athletes are not—as racial minorities are not in the U.S.

A part of white privilege includes the almost limitless pass for any behavior. A part of being a minority, however, is that any perceived or identified mistake is entirely disqualifying.

As I have discussed before, Marshawn Lynch, for example, always received a much different media framing, often as a thug, from the chuckles accompanying stories of Gronk, the Meathead. See also Richard Sherman, Thug.

I am not particularly concerned about arguments around whether or not Gronkowski is the best tight end ever in the NFL. I am, however, interested in how the white male elites of ESPN and the NFL see a bit of themselves in Gronk.

The same way Joe Biden refuses to criticize Mike Pence or Donald Trump as people.

People who look like me, white men believe, are always essentially good guys. It is the people who don’t look like me who have the fatal flaws of character.

Despite the tremendous labor provided overwhelmingly by black men to the success of professional sports and ESPN in the U.S., both the NFL and ESPN flourish on the magic carpet ride of white male privilege—see the owners, most of the coaches, and much of the fanbase who sees themselves in the sea of white male faces and their dominant perspectives on ESPN.

For the NFL, Gronk, the Meathead, is the poster boy, but the Grand Wizard is his now-former team’s owner, Robert Kraft—billionaire who is using his obscene wealth to battle video evidence he frequented a business practicing human sex trafficking.

While the Dallas Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones, are quite a disturbing circus as well, the real “America’s Team” during the Trump era is the New England Patriots.

And now they have lost their Meathead.

And while the 24-hour sports frat parties are going to spend a few days laughing about good ol’ Gronk, the Meathead, there is an owners meeting of the NFL. And in all likelihood, Kraft will ride his magic carpet to the other side of his being sorry for hurting and disappointing others.

In the most tone deaf moment of the brief apology, Kraft offers what can only be seen as the inverse of his real beliefs: “I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions.”

That is not the world in which Kraft or Gronk, the Meathead, live.

That is a world for other people, other people who do not look like them.

 

Post & Courier: Education reform is deja vu all over again

Education reform is deja vu all over again

[with hyperlinks below]

I have taught in South Carolina since 1983, 18 years as an English teacher and coach followed by 17 years as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. Over that career, I have felt exasperated by education reform that has proven to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated against the misguided Read to Succeed Act, policy as flawed as I predicted since it failed to identify the evidence-based problems with reading in SC and then promoted new policy that does not address those problems while creating new and even worse consequences.

Read to Succeed also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state.

Since the 1980s, politicians in SC have insisted that our public schools are failing. Their responses, however, have meant that the only consistency in our schools is we are in a constant state of education reform repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice, charter schools—these policies have been reframed repeatedly, and all we have to show for that is the same complaints about failing schools and decades of research revealing it’s policies that have failed.

Instead of misguided education reform beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC should take a different path, one shifting not only policies but also ideologies.

First, SC must clearly identify what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are caused by out-of-school factors and which are the consequences of in-school practices and policies.

For example, SC’s struggles with literacy are driven by generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-changing standards, tests, and reading programs. Literacy outcomes in our state reflect how children suffer when families have low-paying work, endure transient lives, and are denied affordable insurance and healthcare.

Literacy outcomes also represent that once children enter schools, they receive distinctly different educations: Poor students, black and brown children, English language learners, and special needs students experience tracks and conditions unlike those of white and affluent students who are far more likely to have access to low class sizes in advanced courses and experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity. Policies and practices grounded in equity and not accountability would insure that all children have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are conditions that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective approaches such as standards, testing, and choice options, notably charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside inspirational rhetoric and partisan commitments and seek instead a wealth of educational expertise on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards, what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling, or parental choice.

The harsh reality of our state includes poverty, racism, and disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work as well as affordable healthcare and housing. The harsh reality of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to some students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse to address those realities because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.

“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

Toward the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut mostly abandoned his life as a novelist, publishing instead political rants against George W. Bush and Republicans for In These Times. Some of those essays formed A Man Without a Country in 2005.

Vonnegut in 1972
Vonnegut, 1972

On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died, and then a few months past a year later, George Carlin also died. Vonnegut (84), chain-smoking aside, lived a full 13 years longer than Carlin (71), who had his struggles with recreational drugs and heart disease.

Related image
A Life in Focus: George Carlin, US standup comedian who always said a word out of place

Carlin and Vonnegut profoundly shaped me, Carlin’s comedy albums in the 1970s and Vonnegut’s impressive body of novels and essays throughout my adulthood. Both men as well ultimately became, as Carlin phrases, “old farts”:

Playing off Carlin’s joke that “farts are shit without the mess,” I must here acknowledge that both of these influential men were very weak versions of themselves in the final years—and they also began to fail significantly the brilliance they offered in the prime of their careers.

Two experiences with Carlin lately have nudged me to account for my affection for him and Vonnegut.

First, a much younger friend recently watched some Carlin stand up on YouTube; the response was, “He’s really problematic.” As I watched, these were much later clips, and I found them underwhelming, mostly angry-old-man rants that weren’t very thoughtful and held little evidence of the comedian I worshipped and memorized after listening to his albums over and over in my bedroom as a teenager.

Carlin’s Class Clown and Occupation: Foole were so smart and incisive, such powerful works of language, I am certain these are some of the most solid foundations of how I came to be a reader, writer, and teacher.

When I think of Carlin, I recall his slipping into songs and skits that I still can do by heart: Class Clown, Muhammad Ali—America the Beautiful, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. But I am in retrospect also drawn to his noting that he attended a John Dewey progressive Catholic school, where he terrorized the nuns.

Carlin and Vonnegut spoke to me through their irreverence, especially toward religion, and, of course, their deft use of language and dark humor; I also embraced the profanity.

But, second, after the sobering experience of watching Carlin with a friend, I saw these Tweets by Ja’han Jones:

Something really hard for me to confront happened to Carlin between his three-album run in the 1970s and his posthumously released I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. The skit and material for this were shelved by Carlin because of 9/11 and then Katrina.

That collection is representative of the later Carlin, the ranting that seems, as Jones questions, little more than conservative “get off my lawn” material; this Carlin seems as annoying as being crop-dusted by a stranger while trying to shop—offensive for offensive’s sake.

As a 2008 routine shows, unlike his brilliant examination of profanity from his early career, Carlin begins simply to swear a lot:

I’d like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it fuck Tiger Woods, too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? You know? Being told who you ought to be looking up to. I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much. And fuck Dr. Phil, too. Dr. Phil said I should express my emotions, so that’s what I’m doing. Now, since the last time I rolled through these parts, and I do roll through with some frequency. I’m a little bit like herpes. I keep coming back. But since the last time, I might have seen some of you folks I have had my 70th birthday.

Carlin, the old fart.

I was in New Orleans the spring before Katrina hit, the natural disaster that, like 9/11, gave Carlin pause about his angry-old-man wish for a lot of deaths. My friend and I were tired, and back in our hotel room, I flipped through the cable channels, falling on Carlin in a 1992 interview by Charlie Rose.

Carlin explained “I don’t vote and I really don’t,” once again nudging into my life and steering how I navigated the world.

By 1996, again on Rose, Carlin is a more fully formed “old fart” from the hints of libertarianism in 1992 (“between you and me, I do not consent to be governed”), the detached observer without hope:

There’s a little bit of a sick part in this too, I [root] for the big comic, for the big asteroid to come and make things right….To get us back where we were before the first one came and knocked out these dinosaurs and…I’m routing for that big one to come right through that hole in the ozone layer because I want to see it on CNN. See, I’m here for the entertainment, Charlie. I am. People, philosophers say, “Why are we here?” I know why I’m here, for the…show. Bring it on, I want to see the circus.

Well, we’ve all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work, and always implicit in the work is some positive outcome. That this is all going to work, if only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if we only elect him, if only we do that. It’s not true, it’s circling drain time for humans. I believe this, I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian, “He thinks that he has to say that,” I believe it, and when you say to yourself, “I don’t care what happens,” it just gives you a broader perspective for the art. For the words to emerge. To not care, that’s what happened in that ’92 show, that’s why I could say the planet is fine the people are (fart sound). Because the planet will outlast us, it will be here, and it will be fine.

At 81, Vonnegut wrote in “Cold Turkey”:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

Ultimately, with Vonnegut and Carlin, I recognize their counter-cultural roots in the 1960s and 1970s (when both men really hit) that shift from skepticism to cynicism as they approached death—humanity is doomed because we are self-defeating and at war with each other and Nature.

What am I to do with the ideal, maybe even idealized, Carlin and Vonnegut who shaped me against the “old farts” they became?

I am not sure, really, but I am left with one more similarity between the two men, a few lines late in Vonnegut’s claimed last novel, Timequake, “Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”


South Carolina Education Reform: Déjà vu all over again

Imagine for a moment that in the 1970s when Philip John Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, conducted research on the negative consequences of lead in paint, political leaders chose to ignore the source of the problem, lead in paint, and had initiated policies aimed at children instead.

Now imagine that children continued to suffer from lead paint poisoning every decade since that decision, and every few years, political leaders offered passionate rhetoric confronting the tragedy of lead poisoning in children, followed by yet new policies once again aimed at children, while ignoring entirely the presence of lead in paint.

If this sounds ridiculous, please consider that beginning in the early 1980s, this exact scenario is how South Carolina political leaders have handled public education.

I have a unique perspective on SC education since I have taught here over four decades since 1983, 18 years as a public high school English teacher and coach followed by an on-going 17 years in higher education as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. I also bring to this conversation a doctoral program grounded significantly in the history of public education in the U.S. as I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971.

Over my career in education, I have felt a great deal of compassion for LaBrant as she lamented in her memoir having lived and worked through three back-to-basics movements. As I have, she found herself exasperated by political education reform that proved to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated strongly against yet more misguided education reform in SC—the Read to Succeed Act which has proven to be as flawed as I predicted since it, as my hypothetical scenario above highlights, failed to identify the evidence-based problems with literacy and reading in SC and then promoted new policy and solutions that not only do not address the problems, but create new and even worse problems.

Read to Succeed represents how SC education policy and reform is almost entirely partisan politics, but it also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state now.

Since the early 1980s, political leaders in SC have beaten a steady drum that our public schools are failing, resulting in that the only consistency in our schools has been the same solutions repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice proposals, and charter schools—these templates for policies have been reframed over and over, and all we have to show for that today is the same political complaints—failing schools—and decades of research that all of these approaches have failed.

Instead of yet another misguided series of education reform policies beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC could take a different path, one that shifts not only policies and practices but ideologies.

First, again returning to the opening hypothetical response to lead paint, SC must start with clearly identifying what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are a reflection of social forces and which are the consequences of actual school and teaching practices.

For example, SC’s problems with literacy are a reflection of generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-different standards, tests, and reading programs.

Literacy in our state is a harbinger of how children suffer when parents have low-paying work, face transient lives, and are shut out of robust healthcare and adequate insurance.

Literacy also reflects in our state that once all children enter schools, they receive distinctly different access to education—poor, black, and brown children along with English language learners and students with special needs are significantly cheated by schooling while white and affluent students have access to low class sizes, advanced courses, and the most experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity.

For example, all children should have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes. Historically and currently, those assurances are for privileged children only.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are policies that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective policies such as standards, testing, and choice models such as charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside political rhetoric and partisan commitments in order to turn instead to a wealth of educational research on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards or what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling.

The lead in the paint of our state includes poverty, racism, and a whole host of disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work, healthcare, and affordable housing.

The lead in the paint of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse none the less to address those problems because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.


See Also

UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

U.S. Education a Scam and a Rigged Game

iceberg on water
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Many years ago while I was a high school English teacher, I began to advocate strongly against the influence of the SAT, and all standardized testing. One of the few sources for that criticism was work by Alfie Kohn, whose publications received pretty harsh resistance from the testing industry.

One of my best friends and colleagues while teaching high school left for higher education before I did, and as I would several years later, found himself teaching at a selective liberal arts college. He taught education foundations, where he included some of my work and Kohn’s confronting the failures of testing and the SAT specifically.

What my friend and former colleague discovered is that students at a selective liberal arts college did not receive well his message or the evidence about the inequity in high-stakes standardized testing and college admission exams.

As the recent college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, is gradually unmasking, people with privilege are powerfully invested in proving their merit—even if that veneer has to be manufactured at great expense.

I have been very successful at every level of formal education, attaining what is ominously called a “terminal degree.” Along that journey, I worked very hard, and simultaneously, the journey was nearly effortless because it required skills that I have mostly been quite adept at completing.

As well, I have been a professional educator for 35-plus years, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, including public and private schools.

In those experiences, I have been afforded incredible privilege because I am white and male. But I also have been often at arm’s length from that privilege in some ways because of my working-class background and my ideological alienation from my personal and professional communities.

Most difficult has been that despite my educational accomplishments and career as an educator, I have witnessed and then argued that while formal education is often framed as powerful in terms of how it shapes society and people (the “great equalizer” and “game changer” mantras), the reality of K-12 and higher education in the U.S. is that they mostly reflect and reinforce our inequities along racial, economic, and gender lines.

With the so-called college admissions scandal before us, I hope we can have larger discussions of what the purpose of education is and how access to education must be as sacred as what happens once students enter school.

The scandal exposes that education is not a game changer, but a marker for privilege. The wealthy are always branding, always seeking ways to be associated with the aura of quality.

Wealthy celebrities needed a daughter to attend USC for the prestige that attending Arizona State did not offer. This is no outlier, but an extreme example of how the wealthy perpetuate and are drawn to “elite” institutions, whether it be selective pre-schools, private K-12 academies, or the Ivey League.

Some experiences I have noticed throughout my teaching career include a misunderstanding of teaching and learning compounded at selective (mislabeled as “elite”) colleges by a wish among faculty to take credit for the existing so-called excellence in students admitted.

Let me explain with some historical context first.

The concept of universal public education in the U.S. is expressed very well as an ideal by the deeply flawed elitist Thomas Jefferson in the following passages:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

I… [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree… The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Door, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

The recent college admissions scandal is but the tip of the iceberg of privilege that has already sunk the Titanic plan detailed above by Jefferson, himself an original elitist unable to make his ideal real.

So, since these lofty claims established formal education in the U.S., we have instead embraced a deficit ideology—framing students needing to learn as a flaw of the student and a burden on the teacher (misunderstanding teaching and learning)—and creating formal education as a mechanism of enculturation (institutions that either label and shame those deemed deficient or label and praise those deemed elite).

If we pull back from the scandal and how this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wealthy gaming everything along a spectrum from inequitable and unethical to outright criminal, we must also interrogate that we have failed the ideals of not only universal public education (K-16), but also the potential of education to revolutionize society and individuals.

Many students who need that ideal education the most are disenfranchised from or disillusioned by formal schooling while many privileged students are deeply invested in the game of formal schooling even as the education itself mostly washing over and by them.

In both cases, education is a scam and a rigged game.

While we are hand wringing over the college admissions scam, my home state of South Carolina has rejected provisions in a new education bill calling to lower some student/teacher ratios, claiming such mandates are too expensive.

However, in public schools across the state, mostly white and affluent students sit daily in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes with incredibly low student/teacher ratios, classes often next door to so-called regular classes at and above state maximums for student/teacher loads.

Inequity serving the wealthy and white and mis-serving everyone else—this is a feature of our systems and institutions, including schools, not a glitch—as some seem to suggest about the admissions scandal.

Today, in 2019, formal education in the U.S. is mostly a disturbing snapshot of how we are a people mostly using rhetoric to hide the power and momentum of privilege.

There is really nothing shocking about the admissions scandal, unless you want to pretend it is something other than the tip of a very old and very large iceberg of privilege that defines the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: The Permanent Vacation from Race

landscape photo of white living room
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Over my spring break last week, I made a trip to IUPUI in Indianapolis to present as part of a series spanning their academic year, White Racial Literacy Project Speakers Series, addressing whiteness as part of their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

One controversial aspect of this approach has been providing separate spaces for white faculty, staff, and students as well as people of color to investigate whiteness. That sits inside a larger paradox of this series—an effort to center whiteness as a process for de-centering whiteness.

During the session for people of color, I addressed how I often navigate issues of race from the context of my own life, specifically framing my discussion of race by self-identifying as a redneck (see my PowerPoint here).

This racial identification, I note, is important because I have the privilege of stepping into a racial discussion of whiteness indirectly, using “redneck” and still not actually saying “white.”

A woman in that session responded by acknowledging my privilege in controlling the narrative of myself—I can ignore (or as I say, take a vacation from being white) my whiteness almost all the time, and even when I confront it, I can maintain some level of invisibility (normalcy). She added that both race and gender are imposed on her, leaving her no option for similar vacations from race or gender.

This woman’s response spoke directly to the video in my presentation of author Toni Morrison calmly checking Charlie Rose’s question about her writing about something other than race since her writing is designated as racial because she is a black author writing about black characters.

Morrison poses to Rose if anyone ever asks a similar question of Tolstoy, or any white authors who tend to write exclusively about white characters but are not framed as writing about race.

Here is the essential problem with centering whiteness, as being male or heterosexual is also centered.

Centering is the result of characteristics correlated with power, dominance, becoming both normal and invisible/unspoken.

In literature, as Morrison explains, white male authors are allowed to produce literature that avoids being racial or gendered through claims of being universal or allegorical (see Cormac McCarthy).

F. Scott Fitzgerald is no less writing about race (whiteness) than Morrison is about race (blackness), or Ernest Hemingway, no less about gender (being male) than Kate Chopin or Alice Walker about gender (being female).

Fitzgerald and Hemingway, however, are allowed permanent vacations from race and gender by virtue of their privileges while Morrison, Chopin, and Walker exist always under the burden of being writers of race and gender—unless they achieve the lofty status of being themselves writers of universality or allegory (in other words, writing like Fitzgerald and Hemingway).

As DiAngelo details (see below in resources):

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Interrupting the centering (making invisible, unspoken) of whiteness is interrupting the vacation-as-normal for white people, and that disruption is often met with anger and resistance since whiteness means a permanent vacation, unlike the permanent burden of race (or gender, sexuality, etc.) for those rendered as “other” against the centered whiteness, often so-called people of color.

White fragility reveals itself in microagressions that seem reasonable, not offensive, and even rational (another veneer for privilege) to white people: “I don’t see race,” “All lives matter,” “There is only one race, the human race,” “How about black-on-black crime or the absent black father?,” “Why does it always have to be about race?” (see below in resources).

That final question is a powerful example because white people are always existing in unacknowledged/unexamined whiteness—their lives are always about race—but the centering of whiteness means whiteness (race) remains invisible and unspoken (how I can identify as a redneck as a code for “white”).

For example, historically, Miss America pageants produced only white winners, and as a consequence, Miss Black America was born in protest of the centering of whiteness, for example. Until the fact of whiteness was confronted by Miss Black America (or consider Black History Month as a recognition that U.S. History is mostly white history), white fragility was not triggered, hibernating; whiteness was allowed its permanent vacation.

James Baldwin faced a parallel experience with Morrison’s, being interviewed as a black writer. In that interview from 1984Julius Lester asked James Baldwin about “the task facing black writers,” and Baldwin replied:

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….

Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.

Whiteness in the U.S. created racism as much as it spring from racism, and then whiteness rendered itself invisible—the manufacturing of the permanent vacation from race.

And thus the paradox confronting initiatives such as the one at IUPUI: Centering whiteness by naming it in order to de-center whiteness.

As someone with tremendous privilege who has the luxury to worry about equity—often in abstract ways, too rarely in ways that change policy or structural dismantle privilege—I am left uncomfortable with the fact that white people must do the work of equity and de-centering whiteness and that this fact means a different sort of centering whiteness.

One of my luxuries is I can be a different kind of reckless than Baldwin voiced; one of my privileges is I can choose to work through awareness to allyship and then to abolitionist, the delicate recklessness of dismantling privilege—centering myself and my whiteness as levers for de-centering whiteness.


Recommended Resources

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo (essay)

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (book)

Examples of Racial Microaggressions

Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education, Paul C. Gorski

Racism Scale