No Crisis, No Miracles: The False Narratives of Education Journalism

With a sort of humility rarely found when someone of prominence speaks to or about education in the US, celebrated author Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) found himself speaking at a teachers conference in 1963 “to discuss ‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the identified population making up the drop-out crisis of the time [1].

One of the most impressive aspects of Ellison’s talk is his emphasis on systemic influences on children and their language acquisition: “The American scene is a diversified one, and the society which gives it its character is a pluralistic society-or at least it is supposed to be,” explaining:

The education which goes on outside the classroom, which goes on as they walk within the mixed environment of Alabama, teaches children that they should not reach out for certain things. Much of the education that I received at Tuskegee (this isn’t quite true of Oklahoma City) was an education away from the uses of the imagination, away from the attitudes of aggression and courage. This is not an attack. This is descriptive, this is autobiographic. You did not do certain things because you might be destroyed. You didn’t do certain things because you were going to be frustrated. There were things you didn’t do because the world outside was not about to accommodate you….

It does me no good to be told that I’m down on the bottom of the pile and that I have nothing with which to get out. I know better. It does me no good to be told that I have no heroes, that I have no respect for the father principle because my father is a drunk. I would simply say to you that there are good drunks and bad drunks. The Eskimos have sixteen or more words to describe snow because they live with snow. I have about twenty-five different words to describe Negroes because I live principally with Negroes. “Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth ’Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

What These Children Are Like

And then Ellison goes right to the core issue about language in marginalized and minoritized populations:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex. I’m talking about how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them to find their way, and about that which helps them to be at home in the world. All this seems to me to constitute a culture. If you can abstract their manners, their codes, their customs and attitudes into forms of expression, if you can convert them into forms of art, if you can stylize them and give them many and subtle ranges of reference, then you are dealing with a culture. People have learned this culture; it has been transferred to them from generation to generation, and in its forms they have projected their most transcendent images of themselves and of the world.

What These Children Are Like

On social media, I had a cognitive scientist SOR-splain to me literacy in my home state of South Carolina, recommending I look at narrow assessments of reading (a popular program) to admit that SC has a reading crisis. Like Ellison, I pointed out I don’t need a test to know the truth about reading and literacy in SC, all across the South, and even in the US.

In my 39th year as a literacy educator in SC, where I was born in 1961 and attended formal education from 1967 through 1998, I have lived and witnessed firsthand a fact that the media narratives never capture, but let me ask you to help me before I explain the real story.

Here are longitudinal data for SC NAEP reading scores in grades 4 and 8 from 1992 to 2022; could you please identify where the “crisis” is?:

I lived, learned, and taught in the three decades before these three decades, and I can only conclude that reading achievement (whatever that is) as measured in formal testing has been about the same forever.

In my home state and across the nation, this is the real story: We have become content with a historical and current negligence about the reading acquisition of some populations (Black and brown students, poor students, special needs students, multi-lingual learners), and we lack the political will to address the systemic forces of inequity in the lives and schooling of these students to do anything about it.

Historical negligence is not a crisis; it simply is how things are, what we have come to accept as “normal.”

As I have examined in my scholarship [2], journalism in the US has only two false stories about education—crisis and miracle.

The problem is that neither narrative is true; they are anecdotal and melodramatic so they are compelling to the public, politically useful, and likely to drive reader/viewership for the media.

The US remains in a false crisis cycle begun by A Nation at Risk, and then powerfully expanded under the Obama/Duncan era of shouting education crisis while propping up the false charter school miracle machine (for example, the Harlem “miracle” celebrated by David Brooks citing the Obamas).

The crisis/miracle narrative approach from the Obama era has recently been replicated by the media obsession with SOR; Hanford’s seminal story planted both seeds by falsely claiming the US has a reading crisis and promoting a miracle school that wasn’t.

Again, please point out the crisis here:

And as I have explained, the miracle of the moment, Mississippi, like all the other educational miracles, simply doesn’t exist; MS has had steady growth and some jumps, often well before any SOR reading legislation:

And MS remains below NAEP proficient and continues to have drops between grade 4 and 8:

For many years, I have had to help my students navigate the media obsession with the melodramatic—crisis! miracle!—often found in films such as Waiting for Superman (false union crisis v. charter miracles) and the compelling documentary about education in SC, Corridor of Shame (an emotionally manipulative film about the powerful connection between poverty and educational negligence in the state).

The media, public, and politicians love and benefit from the crisis/miracle rhetoric about education. But those stories do not serve the needs of children, teachers, or schools.

Ellison ends his talk powerfully:

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

What These Children Are Like

Education journalism has reduced education to crisis or miracle, and like the reductive formula Ellison rejects for children, I must reject this false pair of stories.

There is no reading or education crisis, and there are no miracle schools.

There is historical and current political negligence for addressing inequity in the lives and schooling of “other people’s children” in the US.

But that reality doesn’t sell or garner votes.

[1] Toward end, Ellison is scathing:

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What These Children Are Like

[2] Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte, NC: IAP.

Thomas, P.L. (2015). Ignored under Obama: Word magic, crisis discourse, and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope (still) audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 45-68). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.