A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of [their] making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which . . . effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

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

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

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.

Breaking the Gender Codes of Dress Codes

A popular meme in the wake of even more mass shootings makes a powerful, if somewhat hyperbolic, point:

Image result for girls clothing in schools more regulated than guns
DAVID MACK/BUZZFEED NEWS via TeenVogue

With most formal schooling restarting now, the dramatic consequences of gun violence is more likely to overshadow the more subtle negative and disproportionate impact of dress codes, especially on girls and young women as well as black and brown students.

When I raise the topic of dress code early in my foundations of education course, where students are required to tutor in a nearby school once a week, the young women invariably respond in ways that confirms what research has shown about the gender inequity of dress codes and how they are applied.

An early-career high school teacher and I were discussing her school and the new year starting with a different principal; she noted that principal is taking a different approach to the school’s dress code, specifically focusing on applying the existing code uniformly and more strictly.

She is concerned about the strictness, knowing that dress codes and their implementation tend to target girls more harshly than boys and perpetuate slut-shaming culture as well as placing the burden of “proper attire” on those girls instead of addressing toxic masculinity and sexism among the boy students. However, the consistency, she thinks, will be welcomed and much better for the students and the teachers.

Her next comment was important for me since she plans to ask the principal to re-examine the dress code next year, stressing that administrators and teachers need to explore the purposes of that dress code as well as the details (including the gender inequity likely in the current code).

This discussion spurred in me a more nuanced way to think of dress codes in the context of both the #MeToo movement and the rise of pronoun preferences and greater gender sensitivity in, especially, formal schooling.

I have always been skeptical of and resistant to dress codes in schools or in the workplace. I find the broad message about clothing to be superficial. But I also have rejected school dress codes because of their sexism and racism, and how they perpetuate blaming girls/women for boys/men being sexist and abusive.

Now, I want to consider if dress codes can be created and designed to work for equity by, as the teacher above suggests, first having administrators, teachers, and students clearly defining the purposes of the dress code, keeping in mind elements of equity and not simply the traditional focus of dress codes on discipline and compliance.

Next, writing a dress code that is gender neutral is an essential step that is also a valuable exercise for administrators, faculty, and students.

While searching to see if gender neutral dress codes exist, I found this from Roanoke County Schools in Virginia and this from Gender Inclusive Schools.

A final element in transforming from traditional dress codes that perpetuate inequity to equitable dress codes must include maintaining data and evidence on how the code is implemented as well as who is impacted by the implementation.

Equity and community not only can be but also must be a part of the codes that govern public institutions; formal education that claims to be in the service of freedom and democracy cannot achieve those goals when the codes and rules work against that freedom and shared ideology.

Breaking the gender codes of dress codes is more than rejecting them if we can agree to create new ones that recognize the humanity, dignity, and autonomy of all students, teachers, and administrators.


Sample Dress Codes

Evanston Township High School’s student dress code

Eastside High School dress code

Boys can wear skirts under Taiwan school’s gender-neutral uniform plan

See Also
Update: Houston-area school district suspends gender-based provisions of its dress code after being sued over its long-hair policy

‘It’s About Power’: D.C. Students Seek To Remove Bias In School Dress Codes | WAMU

Students Want to Know Why Girls’ Clothing Seems to Be More Regulated Than Guns

NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

The Politics of Wealth and Power

Celebrated author of the graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick may seem to have little in common except for their respective fame and success in their fields.

But Spiegelman’s recent experience with Marvel Entertainment has exposed a much more significant parallel, as Spiegelman concludes about having his work excluded by the company for being too political:

A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political… just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.

This moment of being policed for being too political experienced by Spiegelman has been Kaepernick’s life outside of the playing field for the past three years.

Kaepernick’s NFL sin leading to his being banished from the Gridiron of Eden that is professional football was protesting during the National Anthem—an act often cast as protesting about the National Anthem and thus rejecting the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Despite their fame and success, Spiegelman and Kaepernick are embodiments of workers in the U.S., and thus, they share the burden of workers to be apolitical.

Yet, the context of those demands are important to emphasize: Marvel Entertainment chairman Perlmutter, like many of the owners in the NFL, is allowed his politics of donation.

Politics, then, in the U.S. is reserved for the wealthy and the powerful because the term itself is code for the status quo of power dynamics. The wealthy and powerful must protect their ability to maintain the status quo (that’s their politics regardless of party affiliation) by demanding that workers remain subordinate through taking always the apolitical (thus, non-threatening) stance.

When the owner class claims to be apolitical, that argument represents how “politics” in the U.S. is about what has become normal (thus “apolitical”) versus what is being unmasked (thus “political”).

During the Kaepernick controversy about protesting during the National Anthem, for example, little was noted about the political nature of the anthem being played at a sporting event, about the role of U.S. military endorsement deals with the NFL.

U.S. women’s soccer national team captain Megan Rapinoe and athletes at the recent Pan Am games have also chosen to protest during the anthem and ceremonies—often receiving the same sort of framing by political leaders and the mainstream media: The acts of protest are political (and disrespectful) but the anthems and ceremonies are left as if they are themselves apolitical (since they are normal, common).

If we pull back from that dynamic, this helps characterize why remaining silent about systemic racism or individual acts of racism are not themselves labeled “political,” but naming and confronting racism tend to be cast as not only political but radical, dangerous.

In the U.S., it remains more disruptive to confront and name racism than to be racist.

Racism, sexism, and politics are all matters of power, and we must resist simplistic framings of the terms and their consequences.

The irony of Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences is that they are simultaneously punished for being political while those in power doing the punishing are themselves exercising their politics—directly the politics of their status and wealth and then tangentially their partisan politics that they prefer to be ignored if not outright hidden.

Concurrent with Marvel policing Spiegelman’s politics and Kaepernick’s three-year anniversary for being banned from the NFL as too political, the owner of the Miami Dolphins actively campaigns for Trump while a player for the Dolphins exists in the expectations that he remain apolitical (no protesting) and even apologizes for criticizing the hypocrisy between that owner’s claimed ideals and the realities of Trump’s politics and personal bigotry and misogyny.

As a lifelong educator, first in K-12 public schools and then at the university level, I have lived an entire career steeped in the demand for objectivity and somehow teaching in an apolitical mode.

While teaching often includes this directive as central to how we are trained and then how we are monitored and evaluated, nearly all workers exist under these norms while the ownership class maintains very direct and powerful political lives that they want to be, again, ignored or hidden even as their businesses and personal actions benefit from and perpetuate that politics.

Much of this is cloaked in respectability politics and a sort of business culture that is grounded in layers of “proper,” “professionalism,” and “appropriate” for so-called work environments.

Kaepernick, you see, as a professional must exist while at work as if the real-world around him doesn’t exist.

Like a majority of the NFL, Kaepernick as a young black man, then, cannot acknowledge or use his unique influence to confront this:

About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.

The analysis also showed that Latino men and boys, black women and girls and Native American men, women and children are also killed by police at higher rates than their white peers. But the vulnerability of black males was particularly striking.

“That 1-in-1,000 number struck us as quite high,” said study leader Frank Edwards, a sociologist at Rutgers University. “That’s better odds of being killed by police than you have of winning a lot of scratch-off lottery games.”

The number-crunching by Edwards and his coauthors also revealed that for all young men, police violence was one of the leading causes of death in the years 2013 to 2018.

Kaepernick and NFL athletes are also supposed to defer to societal expectations of power as expressed by the Attorney General:

After telling the crowd that “we need to get back to basics,” Barr said that public figures in the media and elsewhere should “underscore the need to ‘comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.'”

“This will make everyone safe — the police, suspects, and the community at large,” he said. “And those who resist must be prosecuted for that crime. We must have zero tolerance for resisting police. This will save lives.”

Yet, human existence is perpetually a state of politics.

What Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences represent is that those with wealth and power see the world as theirs and seek to maintain the rest of us as their working class—passive, compliant, and apolitical.

The politics of wealth and power is expressed in a demand that everyone else remain silent and passive, that everyone else conform to being apolitical.

Things Fall Apart for Women (Again): Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

My closest reading friend is a young woman in her 20s, an English major and high school English teacher. Recently, she asked me with a chilling earnestness, “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

The question was prompted about my home state of South Carolina because I was telling her about finishing Red Clocks by Leni Zumas—simultaneously with hearing about the impending possibility of Tennessee passing essentially an abortion ban.

Red Clocks cover copy.jpg
Red Clocks, Leni Zumas

Like nearby Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee is poised to join a movement across the U.S. to overturn Roe v. Wade; South Carolina Governor McMaster has guaranteed to join that movement.

Zumas’s novel has drawn comparison’s to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because of its powerful but disturbing near-future speculative fiction rendering of the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade.

Red Clocks tests readers’ comfort with near in her speculation about the life of women after a complete abortion ban in the U.S., including a Pink Wall that denies those women access to abortion in Canada.

Zumas has Atwood’s gift for incisive language—along with Pink Wall, the Personhood Amendment and the Every Child Needs Two law—and setting the novel in Oregon seems an allusion to Ursula K. Le Guin, who famously sparred with Atwood about labels such as “science fiction” (which Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with and against), “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.”

Once I finished reading, I felt the most compelling aspect of the work is Zumas’s deft blending of allegory (the central characters and rotating limited narration through the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife, reminding me of Jeff VanderMeer’s techniques in his Souther Reach Trilogy) with stark relevance to now.

Zumas includes as well a recurring fifth key, although tangential, woman to the narrative, “[t]he polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir”—both a sparsely detailed would-be subject of the Biographer and a representative of the lost women of science (her great work of research eventually published under a man’s name because Sir George Gabriel Stokes in a rejection letter explains it is “a paper which, it is patently clear, you did not write”).

Ultimately, as a reader, I wondered if this prescient work of fiction had presented too sharp a blade for exposing the historical and current burden of simply being a woman, a burden inextricably tied to being sexual and reproductive beings.

Had, I asked, Zumas failed James Baldwin’s litmus test about protest novels?

Along with supporting the politics of the narrative and the work’s relatively overt nudges toward activism, I found the novel a rich and excellent work of speculative fiction because the more I read, the more I was drawn to keep reading. That compulsion was firmly grounded in the characters, flawed often but always sympathetic in a wide range of ways linked to both their unique personal qualities and how they share as well as highlight the many ways the world (and U.S.) remains hostile to their simply being women.

When I stumbled in my reading of this novel, it was the limited third-person narrative that drifts into a sort of stream of consciousness and (like in Atwood’s work) a thin whiteness to the focus that makes me nervous the work can too easily be discounted as the sort of work some white women do that is hyper-feminist to the exclusion of admitting that race and racism cannot be separated from the fight for gender equality.

Zumas and her novel, I think, easily rise above these concerns, again because the politics and prescience are incisive and the narrative and characters are expertly wrought. Above all else, I wanted to remain with these characters because I genuinely cared for their lives and their dilemmas, often intertwined directly but always shared by their womanhood.

[spoiler alert]

The Wife, for example, pulls together many of the feminist thematic elements  in the novel. She frets about her labia, her empty marriage, the possibility of suicide, and her personal ennui grounded in forgoing her law career to be a mother—all while she positions herself to have an affair with a colleague of her husband.

While the affair never materializes (at the pivotal moment when she thinks it will happen, she has to confront, “He does not want her”), the Wife does finally initiate leaving her husband and her marriage, a scene that ends ominously:

The wife kneels on the path.

…She reaches for the black earth.

Her body yearns, inexplicably, to taste it.

Brings a handful to her lips. The minerals sizzle on her tongue, rich with the gists of flower and bone.

…Bright minerals. Powdered feathers. Ancient shells.

And then there is the guilt of being her own Self as well as a member of the tribe of women, the allegiances to both in conflict. While attending the trial of the Mender, represented by a former friend of the Wife from her law school days, she confronts that guilt:

Has the wife become a person who believes all accounts?

Sort of, yes, she has.

She has been too tired to care.

The Personhood Amendment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the calls for abortion providers to face the death penalty—the person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious.

Too tired to be furious.

This Brave New World closing in on the Mender, the Daughter, and the Biographer in direct and terrifying ways has, to the Wife, mostly not been about her directly, a wife and mother of two living rent-free in a family home.

Navigating the Wife in this novel was parallel to the bitter pill of a majority of white women voters choosing Trump—sacrificing the good of women for the perceived personal comfort they have in their own lives.

However, the Wife’s fear of change is only nearly paralyzing since she ultimately, it seems, takes the initiative toward a new life, one less secure and more directly jeopardized by the erasure of women’s rights.

The story circles back from the opening focus on the Biographer and her subject to the closing chapter that concludes the novel with the word “possible,” reminding me of Adrienne Rich’s work and Atwood’s framing of speculative fiction:

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained by phone to Wired.com during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

I am afraid, none the less, and haunted by my reading friend’s question: “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

What will any of us do? What are any of us doing now?

Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind

While many, including myself, have focused on Jennie Young’s provocative argument that “that we stop teaching [academic citation] entirely” in first-year writing, Young builds to an important and broader point by the end: “Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it.”

I certainly agree there are no simple fixes, but here I want to consider a foundational need if we are in fact concerned about writing instruction—the “why.”

Writing in 1946, Lou LaBrant asserted, “There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach.”

Here, I think, LaBrant is calling for any teacher of writing to understand both the “what” and the “why” before coming to terms with the “how” of teaching writing.

At the K-12 and higher education levels, I suspect there are far more teachers assigning writing than teaching writing, and far more teachers grading writing than giving substantive feedback on writing.

I also would anticipate that too few teachers have investigated the “what” and “why”—in part because they are teaching in a curriculum that is absent a cohesive writing program, some guiding principles for why any teacher is assigning or teaching writing to students.

In a brief exchange with Young, she noted two points from a post of mine grounded in her citation argument. First, Young paraphrases a question, “Is first year writing a service course or a discipline for its own sake?” and from my post, “First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.”

Both of these, I propose, are inherent problems when writing instruction is not grounded in a writing program with clear purposes and goals that are shared by the faculty and the students.

Let me stress now that I am not suggesting there is a singular set of purposes and goals that all writing instruction and programs should adhere to; I am arguing that writing instruction must be grounded in some programatic purposes and goals that are communal (not top-down mandates such as meeting states standards or university mission statements or initiatives) and related to the larger educational purposes and goals of that school.

However, writing instruction in any one course can be greatly improved if—along with insuring that the teaching and learning conditions are conducive to writing instruction—that course and instructor have a clear set of achievable goals. In other words, writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.

A sophomore level high school English class and first-year writing, for example, often labor under the same problems—hostile teaching and learning conditions, an unachievable amount of expected learning outcomes (some of which include writing, but other non-writing expectations crowd the teacher’s and students’ time for learning writing), and a lack of program cohesion or buy-in by teachers and students.

To be blunt, there is little any of us can do about writing instruction being messy and complicated, but one way to help those realities not unnecessarily impede good instruction and robust learning is to be aware as a teacher of the “why” and “what” before designing the “how.”

And for students, less will be more when any writing-intensive course or individual writing assignment in a course is grounded in clear purposes and achievable outcomes.

To return to Young’s specific concern, do all first-year students need intensive academic citation instruction—and more pointedly, is it reasonable to expect all or most of them to understand and apply academic citation well before they have determined their major, the discipline that will dictate what citation stylesheet and writing conventions matter?

When I was briefly directing my university’s first-year seminar program, I argued (without as much success as I intended) that first-year writing needs to be transitional (from high school to college) and foundational (for the needs and expectations of whatever major any student may choose in college, and eventual career).

And as I have repeated often, I dissuaded anyone from thinking first-year writing (or any writing-intensive course) could be an inoculation, somehow “fixing” students for whatever future teachers or courses expected of them.

Decades of teaching and writing and also writing myself have proven to me, humbled me, to the reality that both teaching writing and writing are journeys, often without any ultimate finish line. And I must stress, as Young did, that the messy and not simple are the realities we as teachers and our students must mostly accept.

For writing instruction to work, schools and universities must first design a shared vision for a writing program, and then develop a series of courses that work together to meet the needs of that program in the service of students. With that framework, teachers must be allowed and encouraged to address the “why” and “what” of the courses they are charged to teach.

With their students in mind, next, teachers can begin to fashion the “how” of writing instruction.

Without this purposeful and communal approach, we are likely left with writing being assigned and graded—and writing itself being as poorly served as the students laboring under those assignments and grades.

See Also

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to writeEnglish Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

The Weaponization of Academic Citation, Jennie Young

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

“How much we should emphasize academic citation in the first-year writing classroom has long been a matter of debate,” explains Jennie Young, director of the first-year writing program at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Then Young argues: “However, I’d like to take it one step further: I suggest that we stop teaching it entirely.”

I taught high school English for 18 years, much of that instruction focusing on teaching writing and preparing students for college. Since then, I have been a professor in higher education, including over a decade teaching (and briefly directing) first-year writing.

woman writing on notebook
Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Young’s provocative and compelling proposal speaks to many of the problems I have experienced with teaching first-year writing as well as with providing faculty the guidance and support they need to teach first-year writing (and writing in general)—especially those faculty outside the fields of composition and English.

Students typically come into first-year writing with a very narrow and distorted understanding of academic writing and citation; they have mostly written cited essays in English (and thus have very little awareness of the wide range of conventions for writing across academic disciplines) and have been inculcated into thinking “everyone uses MLA.”

Faculty charged with teaching first-year writing often struggle with teaching writing broadly because most college faculty are academics who write (by necessity and often begrudgingly) and not writers who happen to teach or do scholarship (this second category is where I reside).

These of course are not the only problems I have experienced, but they do serve as solid foundations for entering into a dialogue with Young’s call for not teaching academic citation in first-year writing based on four powerful reasons:

  • The vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate. Most writing is now digital and uses active links to document source material.
  • It hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.
  • There are other ways to attribute credit. Journalists, for example, just write “according to” and provide the information and the date if it’s relevant.
  • The citation systems change from style to style and update to update. Why are we spending so much time insisting on something that’s not standardized across disciplines and is going to change the minute MLA decides to make arbitrary changes (to an already arbitrary system) in order to justify yet another new edition?

As I have examined before about my own instruction in first-year writing, I seek ways to scaffold student experiences in order to first dismantle their learned misunderstandings and garbled sense of disciplinary writing/citation and then to help them reconsider evidence-based and cited writing at a conceptual level.

Young’s first and third bullet above speak directly to my own teaching and assignments since I ask students-as-writers to investigate the diverse ways writers cite (I also emphasize journalism and on-line writing that incorporates hyperlinks) while introducing them to cited writing through hyperlinking so that we can focus on choosing high-quality sources and writing well instead of the tedium of formatting.

For students and writing instructors, however, I have to pause at Young’s use of “teaching” and ask that all of us charged with teaching writing in higher education reconsider some key aspects of first-year writing as well as the entire writing program at our colleges and universities.

Broadly, faculty must understand and also support the explicit goals of first-year writing and the writing program; obviously this assumes those goals have been decided and are available for faculty and students.

Young, I think, is pushing against the purposes of first-year writing: Is first-year writing designed to prepare students as writers and informed thinkers, or is first-year writing designed to prepare students as academic writers during their college experience?

These are not trivial questions in terms of whether or not we support Young’s argument about dropping citation instruction in first-year writing.

One of the tensions I have witnessed in my providing faculty development for colleagues teaching first-year writing is that I tend to work big-picture in terms of fostering students as good writers (not primarily disciplinary academic writers) while also cultivating student awareness of the more narrow (and often tedious) aspects of disciplinary academic writing.

Here is where I struggle with the word “teach” and also acknowledge that Young is making an excellent point about assessment and grades for students in first-year writing.

So here are the conditions of first-year writing that must be addressed when considering Young’s proposal.

All courses are inherently contracts between faulty and students while also being contracts among faculty. Students expect to receive identified instruction in any course, but faulty also teach each course with the understanding that students have had other courses that address content and behaviors that inform that instruction.

First-year writing—like general education requirements and introductory courses—has obligations to both each student and the entire curriculum of a college or university.

If we step back from Young’s specific proposal, I think the essence of her argument is one that is deeply compelling to me as a writing instructor: First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.

As many of those with whom I have worked to guide and direct first-year writing have come to repeat, no writing-intensive course is an inoculation. I would add, especially first-year writing.

The teaching of writing, whether discipline-bound or not, takes a great deal of time and several writing-intensive courses over the entirety of any student’s formal education.

All colleges and universities with first-year writing and writing programs (and ideally several writing-intensive courses designed to address the goals of that program) must confront at least Young’s argument in terms of what any first-year writing course can accomplish.

Since, as Young notes, academic citation is discipline-specific and those style sheets are in a constant state of flux, it seems quite reasonable to focus on the broad elements of writing well and being well-informed during first year writing while also conceding some space and time to introducing students to academic citation (fostering awareness, not teaching and assessing it).

Academic citation can and should be left to upper-level writing courses and courses in a student’s major where the tedium has at least some relevance in the moment of performing at a high level in a discipline in order to achieve a degree (and where faculty in that major can make informed decisions about what those majors need, as they say, in the “real world” after college).

The great irony about first-year writing and writing programs in higher education is that they are simultaneously framed as essential since they are charged with incredibly high-stakes expectations (teach all first-year students how not to plagiarize and how to select high-quality sources to incorporate into flawlessly formatted citation guidelines while also being nuanced and well informed about the topic) but are often under-staffed or staff in haphazard and poorly supported ways while also receiving inadequate funding and allowed to exist in conditions that work against those lofty goals.

First-year writing is an introduction to a next step as writers and thinkers for college students, and it is an introduction in many ways to college itself.

First-year writing, again, is not an inoculation, and Young’s call for removing academic citation from what we demand of first-year writing instructors and students is the least we can do to create the sort of courses that serve well both our students and out curriculum goals.

See Also

Citation Matters, Kelly J. Baker

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Real-World Citation versus the Drudgery of Academic Writing

Post-Truth U.S. Doesn’t Have a Prayer

Before I could examine a renewed interest in public school prayer prompted by a court ruling in South Carolina, school prayer was once again grossly misrepresented in the wake of two mass shootings, the cancer on the U.S. that political leaders refuse to diagnose or treat properly.

man praying
Jack Sharp

I taught and coached in a public high school in SC for 18 years, the same high school I had attended in my home town. As a coach, I lived a very direct example of how most people completely misunderstand both the laws and practices connected with prayer in public schools.

Sports, like graduation (the source of the recent SC court ruling), have strong and problematic connections with organized religion, especially in the South. Coaches tend to call players to prayer quite often, notably right before a contest.

Since I recognized that coaching and teaching are both positions representing the state, I refused to coerced my players into prayer. Pre-game prayer was optional and organized by players, to be performed before we gathered as a team to start a contest.

This is a key element in how people misunderstand the laws concerning prayer in public schools. Athletes join sports teams for the sports, not for religious purposes, and students are compelled to attend school (until the age designated for dropping out).

However, these same students often voluntarily join religious clubs within public schools, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Teens for Christ.

So here is the law and the distinction.

Prayer by students has always been and remains completely legal and fully protected by the law in U.S. public schools. Despite the misinformation promoted by political leaders, prayer was never banned in public schools.

The law from the 1960s did something quite different and in the interest of religious and non-religious people; it banned coercing children or teens to pray.

Religious freedom in the U.S. should be both the freedom to be religious or not and the freedom from government endorsement or denial of those beliefs or lack of organized faith.

If prayer is absent in public schools in the U.S., then that is the result of the choices of students—not a compelled outcome of the state through the institution of public schools.

But the argument that mass shootings in the U.S. are the result of prayer being banned in schools is not only flawed because it is factually untrue, but because it remains one of the many ways that political leaders and pro-gun ideologues use post-truth and failed logic to distract from the fact that only a couple real conditions exist to explain how the U.S. is by far the outlier in mass shootings among countries similar in any way to the U.S.

The absence of prayer cannot be the cause of mass shootings since prayer is not banned in public schools.

Mental illness is not the cause of mass shootings because the evidence shows that mental illness is more strongly associated with being a victim of violence, not committing violence. And all of the countries with few or no mass shootings also have citizens struggling with mental health.

Video games are not the cause of mass shootings because the research fails to show a connection between playing and violence, but as with mental health, all of the countries with few or no mass shootings also have access to violent video games.

Baseless scapegoating of prayer, mental health, and video games is a powerful example of how post-truth public discourse and political leadership are themselves deadly.

The real distinctions between the U.S. and countries with few or no mass shootings are access to guns and the amount as well as types of guns.

Several countries have taken actions that have in fact resulted in curbing gun violence, but that action had to begin with the truth, a truth grounded in guns themselves.

Yes, the U.S. also has ample evidence that a type of misogyny and male anger is also connected with mass shootings. These domestic terrorists are often white males who have expressed and even acted on racist beliefs and hatred or dehumanizing of women (domestic violence is a disturbing marker of predicting mass shootings).

But even these factual acknowledgements are incomplete unless we face the cold hard truth that access to guns and the amount and types of guns common the U.S. are essential parts of how the country is known for mass shootings and gun violence.

As the body count continues to increase and political leaders and the public grow numb to the horrors of mass shootings, some have come to see the “thoughts and prayers” response as hollow, even offensive.

In the wake of El Paso and Dayton, efforts to blame inexcusable terror on a lie about prayer in public school are themselves gross and immoral examples of post-truth politics and public discourse.

And thus, the darkest of ironies: The post-truth U.S. doesn’t have a prayer.

The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking

Everything about Williamson M. Evers is politically conservative, right-wing. Evers is a research fellow for the conservative Hoover Institution, explicitly dedicated to market economics and antagonistic to “government intrusion into the lives of individuals” (a libertarian strain of conservatism in the U.S.).

Evers has also been an appointee in a number of Republican state and federal administrations, often connected with education despite his academic background being entirely in the field of political science.

So let’s explore for a moment the great irony in Evers’ opinion/commentary piece for the Wall Street JournalCalifornia Wants to Teach Your Kids That Capitalism Is Racist. Two elements of this screed are worth highlighting, in fact.

Over the course of about 770 inflammatory words that repeatedly misrepresent concepts and terminology in order to rush to his central arguments, Evers builds to these sweeping conclusions: “The curriculum is entirely wrongheaded when it comes to critical thinking” and “Teaching objective history clearly isn’t the goal.”

These claims are nested in the larger argument that the California curriculum Evers is criticizing is somehow a veiled left-wing agenda (while Evers carefully avoids making a case about the possibility of “objective” teaching and learning and is entirely uncritical himself in terms of his own conservative agenda).

Ultimately, Evers is resisting, ironically, a critical examination of capitalism and endorsing the free market ideology of his think tank and political party as if those are what counts as “objective.”

The ideological spectrum of the right in the U.S. (which is by far the dominant ideology, especially when compared to Europe) is conservative in the sense of tradition—meaning that an institution such as public education would be dedicated to transmitting a fixed set of knowledge (this, in fact, is what Evers frames as “objective” even though this approach to teaching and learning is also biased since some agent in power must decide what knowledge counts and what knowledge doesn’t).

Public education in the U.S. has always been mostly conservative and used primarily to perpetuate traditional values associated with the country’s foundational ideals; as such, public education has mostly avoided critical thinking.

And therein lies the great irony of Evers opinion piece.

Critical education and critical thinking do come out of a leftist position, broadly a Marxist tradition. As an academic or scholarly lens, however, “left” in this context is far less about narrow partisan politics and more about how anyone navigates knowledge and human behavior.

For example, a traditional (thus conservative) approach to the Founding Fathers would offer students the ideals and actions taken by the men typically framed as founders in order to establish what makes the United States a free country. In many ways, this traditional approach to teaching is not factually incorrect, but it is misleading by omission.

If we pull back from this narrow history lesson, we must also acknowledge that the teaching of history in U.S. public schools is almost exclusively the promoting of positive and thus uncritical views of U.S. policies, wars, and political leaders.

In other words, the biased and incomplete approach to history that Evers idealizes as “objective” has not only dominated the teaching and learning of history in U.S. public education for more than a century, it remains the norm of how most history courses are taught—except in outlier situations where teachers inject critical history such as Howard Zinn’s history-as-activism or a marginally popular text, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.

While Evers and many on the right enjoy demonizing government and government institutions as leftist, the reality is that all formal organizations are inherently conservative in that for any cohesive body to exist, it must maintain its structure. To be critical is to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

This is the essential partisan political tension between conservative (keeping things as they are) and progressive (seeking change, idealistically for the better).

Many on the right struggle with genuine criticism because to be critical is viewed as always negative (as in “to criticize) and criticism of X is almost always assumed to be an endorsement of Y.

Here is the great flaw of thinking perpetuated by partisan politics in the U.S., a system that is almost entirely divorced of an ideological spectrum and any real range of choice. Republican and Democrats in the U.S. are mostly well right of center ideologically and barely indistinguishable from each other beyond party affiliation.

Academic settings in the U.S.—at both the K-12 and high education levels—are rarely about endorsing either Republicans and Democrats (because the traditional nature of teaching and learning is not critical and thus is endorsing the system that perpetuates both). And any left-leaning elements in formal education, by being critical, are pulling back from that simplistic binary and from the incomplete knowledge base taught in traditional curriculum in order to ask critical questions.

Thomas Jefferson is not simply a great thinker and leader, but a man deeply stained by slavery during the inception of the country. Slavery as well is not simply a scar on the history of the nation, but a key element in how capitalism gained momentum and so-called economic progress flourished in the early years of the country.

And thus, the lazy and misguided approach to critical thinking on the right would be having students investigate which car is the better choice, a Honda Civic or a Toyota Camry.

Authentic critical thinking would be having students investigate who benefits from the U.S. being so invested in car ownership while considering the option of not owning a car at all (seeking better public transportation, for example).

Evers as a conservative ideologue, then, is incapable of recognizing that he is endorsing a curriculum that is biased propaganda (pro-capitalism) and a way of teaching that lacks critical thinking.

In fact, Evers is the one wrongheaded about critical thinking: “Critical thinking is described not as reasoning through logic and consideration of evidence but rather a vague deconstruction of power relationships so that one can ‘speak out on social issues.'”

Critical education and critical thinking in that tradition are entirely about equipping students to interrogate knowledge, to ask “In whose interest is this?” and “Who is in power and why?”

The right in the U.S. is the power class, and Evers is among that power elite.

Those of us on the left, never among the power elites, are not threatened by critical thinking that seeks to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

Those of us who are critically progressive are capable of seeing that the U.S. historically and currently is good for some while failing many. To be critical and progressive, then, is to seek better for all, not just maintaining the good for some.

As a critical educator and scholar, I have always wondered about the failed logic on the right. If the traditional values the right so eagerly endorses and protects are in fact as wonderful as they claim, why can they not stand against criticism and interrogation?

The authoritarian tendencies of the right suggest a fear of individual thinking and autonomy; the right is deeply invested in power, but the left remains deeply skeptical of all power and authority.

Formal education dedicated to human liberation must be grounded in critical thinking, the ways of calling all knowledge into question and seeking the full story—not simply the aspects of the story endorsed by the ruling elites.

The final irony is that commentaries such as Evers is unintended proof of the ultimate dangers of incomplete knowledge and a failure to think critically.

See Also

CQ Researcher: Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education