Category Archives: Crisis

Chicken Little Journalism Fails Education (Again and Again): Up Next, the Science of Science?

Often education journalism is disturbing in its “deja vu all over again“: Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up).

Criticizing U.S. public education through international comparisons is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. media, reaching back at least into the mid-twentieth century.

This is one of many crisis approaches to covering education—Chicken Little journalism—that makes false and misleading claims about the quality of U.S. education (always framed as a failure) and that because of the low status of the U.S. in international comparisons of education, the country is doomed, economically and politically.

Oddly enough, as international rankings of education have fluctuated over 70-plus years, some countries have risen and fallen in economic and political status (even inversely proportional to their education ranking) while the U.S. has remained in most ways the or one of the most dominant countries—even as we perpetually wallow in educational mediocrity.

Yet, this isn’t even remotely surprising as Gerald Bracey (and many others) detailed repeatedly that international comparisons of educational quality are essentially hokum—the research is often flawed (apples to oranges comparisons) and the conclusions drawn are based on false assumptions (that education quality directly causes economic quality).

Media coverage, however, will not (cannot?) reach for a different playbook; U.S. public education is always in crisis and the sky is falling because schools (and teachers) are failing.

Next up? I am betting on the “science of science.”

Why? You guessed it: The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools. As Sarah D. Sparks reports:

Fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors and a little more than a third of 4th and 8th graders performed proficiently in science in 2019, according to national test results out this week.

The results are the latest from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. Since the assessment, known as “the nation’s report card,” was last given in science in 2015, 4th graders’ performance has declined overall, while average scores have been flat for students in grades 8 and 12.

“The 4th grade scores were concerning,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “Whether we’re looking at the average scores or the performance by percentiles, it is clear that many students were struggling with science.”

The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools

And it seems low tests scores mean that schools once again are failing to teach those all-important standards:

Carr said the test generally aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, on which 40 states and the District of Columbia have based their own science teaching standards. Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are developing new science assessments under a federal pilot program.

But it is even worse than we thought: “These widening gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students, particularly in grade 4, mirror similar trends seen in national and global reading, math, and social studies assessments.”

Yep, U.S. students suck across all the core disciplines compared to the rest of the world!

And what makes this really upsetting, it seems, is we know how to teach science (you know, the “science of science”) because there is research: Effective Science Learning Means Observing and Explaining. There’s a Curriculum for That. Not only is there research, but also there are other countries doing it better and there are, again, those standards:

Organizing instruction around phenomena is a key feature of many reforms aimed at meeting the Next Generation Science Standards, an ambitious set of standards adopted or adapted by 44 states in 2013. Phenomena are also an organizing feature of instructional reforms in countries outside the United States, like high-performing Finland. But what is phenomenon-based learning, and what evidence is there that it works?…

Our study found that students exposed to the phenomenon-based curriculum learned more based on a test aligned with the Next Generation standards than did students using the textbook. Importantly, the results were similar across students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

William R. Penuel

Up next, of course, is the media trying to understand why science scores are so abysmal (like reading and math), assigning blame (schools, teachers, teacher education), and proposing Education Reform. What should we expect?

Well, since fourth-grade scores are in the dumpster, we need high-stakes science testing of all third-grade students and to impose grade retention on all those students who do not show proficiency in that pivotal third-grade year.

We also should start universal screening of 4K students for basic science knowledge (or maybe use “science” to screen fetuses in utero).

Simultaneously, states must adopt legislation mandating that all science curricula are based on research, the “science of science.”

Of course, teachers need to be retrained in the “science of science” because, you know, all teacher education programs have failed to teach the “science of science” [insert NCTQ report not yet released].

And while we are at it, are we sure Next Generation Science Standards are cutting it? Maybe we need Post-Next Generation Science Standards just to be safe?

Finally, we must give all this a ride, wait 6-7 or even 10 years, and then start the whole process over again.

The magical thing about Chicken Little journalism is that since the sky never falls, we can always point to the heavens and shout, “The sky is falling!”

The “Science of Reading”: A Movement Anchored in the Past

One of the defining moments of my first-year writing seminar is my reading aloud the first few paragraphs from A Report from Occupied Territory by James Baldwin.

This essay in The Nation from July 11, 1966, offers students dozens of powerful examples of compelling and purposeful writing, Baldwin at his best. But the circumstances of the essay are what first strike my students.

“There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys,” Baldwin writes. “They were running from the police.”

We note that Baldwin uses “police[men]” five times in the first paragraph, which focuses on people in the Harlem “in terror of the police” because “two of the policemen were beating up a kid.”

Students immediately noted that Baldwin was addressing exactly the same racism grounded in policing that has been the source of social unrest in the U.S. throughout 2020.

In other words, racism in policing in the U.S. is not a recent crisis, but a historically systemic fact of policing.

The more things change, we noted, the more they stay the same.

The history of education in the U.S. is often fascinating and surprising, but it also is like being Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day—especially when it comes to bandwagons and political and public cries of “crisis.”

Fews aspects of education represent this pattern more than reading, suffering the “science of reading” (SoR) movement since early 2018.

The SoR movement is nothing new, a movement anchored in the past.

But as David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby note at The Answer Sheet (The Washington Post), “More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.”

Reading was declared a crisis in the 1940s because of literacy tests of WWII recruits, throughout the 1950s and 1960s because of Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, in the 1990s because of handwringing over NAEP scores, during the George W. Bush presidency with the National Reading Panel and No Child Left Behind, and, as noted above, over the last couple years because of the SoR movement prompted by the journalism of Emily Hanford.

As my students came to recognize about racism and policing in the U.S., anyone who examines the history and current bandwagon of reading will see that schools, teachers, and students have, like Phil, lived the same day over and over—reading is in crisis and here is the silver-bullet for all students to read.

One must wonder why we never pause to confront that this formula has never resulted in anything other than the same crisis.

And one must acknowledge that something cannot be a movement if it is anchored in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Take for example The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement.

The Coalition Members include a strong connection to The Reading League, formed in 2016.

Both the website and the League represent the very worst of missionary zeal and good intentions; and they both fail the fact check necessary for claims about a reading crisis and the bandwagon of SoR.

First, The Reading League grounds their concerns in a misguided and false red flag about whole language, as reported on Syracuse.com: “Murray is referring to the large base of research and knowledge that proves scientifically-grounded methodology in teaching reading is more effective than the ‘whole language’ approach most curriculum takes.”

This argument has two significant flaws. First, whole language has been replaced by balanced literacy for decades. And second, the 1990s revealed a discredited assault on whole language and an ignored analysis of by Darling-Hammond that showed a positive correlation between higher NAEP scores and students being in whole language classrooms.

The website, The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement, is complicated to fact check because there seems to be a purposeful effort to appear to be different than the SoR bandwagon by rejecting the term as a “buzzword” and demanding “We must preserve the integrity of reading science.”

Further, in the Preamble to their The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide, one sentence stands out: “We know that our children can be taught to read properly the first time.”

“The first time”?

Literacy and reading are lifelong learning experiences, and this claim raises a genuine red flag about this movement.

But the biggest reveal about the so-called SoR movement is in the definition, where there is a narrow parameter set for “scientifically-based”: experimental/quasi-experimental study design, replication or refinement of findings, and peer-reviewed journal publication.

If that sounds familiar, you have simply awakened to the same day some twenty years ago when the National Reading Panel made the exact same claim—and proved to be a deeply flawed report while the policy implications not only did not improve reading but also became mired in funding corruption with Reading First.

The SoR movement is a bandwagon with its wheels mired in the same muddle arguments that have never been true and silver-bullet solutions that have never worked.

Like Phil, we find ourselves waking up to the same day in reading.

This is no crisis, but it certainly is a tired, old story that needs to be left behind through some other vehicle than a bandwagon.

See Also

Greenville News (SC): SC should not “jump on bandwagon” of “science of reading” movement

Open Letter to SC House and Senate Concerning Bill 3613 [UPDATED]

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

Pandemic Pedagogy: The New Normal?

The evening before the first day of school for students, a high school teacher opened their district email to discover that the schedule for International Baccalaureate (IB) students had changed.

Again.

That new schedule is also layered onto the tentative district-wide pandemic schedule that has four color-coded waves of students, divided by last names, who attend one day a week Monday through Thursday with all students remote on Fridays.

This teacher was distraught. To tears and hopelessness.

This teacher has already expressed what I am hearing and reading across the U.S.: Teaching has become unmanageable, and the current teacher shortage is about to take an even greater hit with even more teachers leaving the profession.

To demonstrate that the last-minute changes and the complex system mixing face-to-face (F2F) with remote teaching are, in fact, nearly impossible, this teacher created a mind-numbingly elaborate chart and shared it with the principal.

This is the new normal for K-12 teachers in the U.S. An already nearly impossible profession has been made even more bureaucratic and dehumanizing by the sheer weight of managing all the moving parts.

As a college professor—a teaching profession dramatically less stressful and complex than K-12 teaching (which I did for 18 years)—I have also resorted to color-coding my rosters in an effort to manage that I now have first-year students and seniors on campus and in class (except for those choosing remote learning all semester) as well as sophomores and juniors who are remote until September 14.

On any day, also, students may be remote due to health concerns or quarantine.

My class sessions are a mix of F2F students (no more than 12) and students joining class remotely by zoom, their tiny images in blocks on the computer screen and projected on the drop-down screen at the front of the class.

I am trying to teach and make some sort of contact with both groups; the masked F2F students are disorienting, and the tiny images of students on the screen give a whole new meaning to “remote.”

After the first few days of class, I am also realizing that discussion-based and student-centered teaching are essentially impossible. Our masks make talking and hearing a struggle as we are remaining 6 feet apart, and in order to maintain the social distancing requirements, I cannot ask students to form small groups and interact.

Like many K-12 teachers as school resumes this fall, I must admit that for the first time in 37 years of teaching, I find my work as a teacher something I dread.

And I mean the actual classroom teaching, not just all the other aspects of being a teacher that have always, frankly, been mind-numbing (grading, standards and testing, meetings, etc.).

For K-12 and higher education teachers and professors, we must survive the current pandemic pedagogy (many of the conditions are the only options we have even as they are not good options for teaching and learning), but we must also begin to imagine what the new normal will be on the other side of all this.

When I moved to higher education 19 years ago, one of the first things I witnessed was my university debating a change to the academic calendar, the weekly course schedule, and the curriculum (the general education requirements). This university had a long history of a three-session academic year (students taking three 4-credit courses in fall and spring along with two 4-credit courses in the middle winter session), and students attended all classes five days a week (similar to high school).

This debate took months, but one of the most hotly contested issues was moving from five days a week to the traditional MWF and TTh scheduling found at most colleges.

Many faculty seemed very committed to seat time, acknowledging a belief that learning was essentially grounded in face-to-face instruction. I found that reasoning flawed then, and supported the change.

However, the debate did highlight that the structures we choose for schooling profoundly impacts how we teach and how (and if) students learn.

The pandemic, on the other hand, has foisted upon educators at all levels changes that have not been debated and are often unwanted.

I had to teach my graduate summer course online (with no input on the decision) and have been forced to put all my courses on the university’s course management program that I have always avoided for ideological and pedagogical reasons.

Most educators have essentially no choice except to participate in remote programs (such as zoom) that raise significant questions about personal data and instructional practices.

As I have discussed about moving to remote teaching last spring, there are elements of pandemic pedagogy that match well my practices in so-called normal circumstances, notably individualized instruction grounded in feedback on student artifacts of learning (such as essays).

Ending a well-established course with pandemic pedagogy is quite different than beginning one that way.

I cannot accept that the Covid-19 pandemic will be on balance a positive moment for education—or humanity. The pandemic’s cost to human life and health far outweigh the value of education.

But that ship has sailed; we cannot undo the shift that the pandemic has forced on teaching as a profession, on learning, and on being a human.

It seems certain that what comes next will not be a return to that former normal. It seems certain that we should not want to return to that normal.

However, we should begin the transition to the new normal, and we must do that intentionally.

To accomplish a bit of alchemy, then, we must embrace the pause the pandemic has afforded us in order to reimagine the following:

  • The role of F2F instruction (seat time) and whole-group class sessions.
  • The consequences of inequity grounded in race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc., for teaching and learning.
  • The roles of teacher and student in the teaching/learning dynamic.
  • The purposes and forms of assessment and grades.
  • The spaces (real and virtual) for teaching and learning.
  • The funding for and costs of schooling.
  • The professional autonomy of teachers and professors.
  • The academic calendar.
  • The value and problems associated with technology.
  • The significance of privacy and personal agency for teachers/professors and students.

With almost four decades of experience teaching and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, I must emphasize that these have always been the issues we should have been critically unpacking and reimagining.

The universe has given us a terrible pause in normal, but the pandemic has not taken away our possibilities to create a new normal that will be a better realization of the ideals we often express about the importance of education.

As I have often argued, education in the U.S. is not a failure; however, we have mostly failed the promise of education.

Ideally, I want to sit in the same room with my students and see their uncovered faces. I want to watch and listen as they construct their own meaning and knowledge for themselves.

I do very much miss some of the pre-pandemic world of teaching and learning that was only five or six months ago.

But I am also waiting on a sense of hope for what comes next, a new normal post-pandemic; as Maggie Smith imagines, “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

girl reading book
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

While rewatching Zombieland recently, I noticed that this version of the zombie genre was not only a blend of horror and comedy but also a slightly different take on the zombie mythology; a central character, Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg), embodies a motif focusing not on the zombies but on the survivors, and their survival techniques often grounded in anxiety and other compulsions that are often a burden in the so-called normal world.

Zombie narratives are enduring in popular culture throughout history because reanimation of life and the near impossibility of killing the reanimated are truly horrifying elements. But zombie narratives are also highly adaptable to many cultural perspectives.

Currently the Reading War has been reanimated around the branding of the “science of reading,” and this version seems even harder to kill than previous iterations; the effectiveness of the double tap perfected by Columbus in the film would be deeply appreciated in this circumstance.

As we wander into 2020, the “science of reading” movement has developed a few new approaches grounded in the foundational arguments that have made “science of reading” as compelling as a zombie story: discrediting popular reading programs as not scientific and reanimating Reading First (the program built on the National Reading Panel).

Central to these developments in the “science of reading” onslaught on reading are two key names: Timothy Shanahan and Lucy Calkins.

In many ways, Shanahan (a member of NRP) has emerged as a key voice in rewriting the history of both the NRP and Reading First. Calkins, as the name on a widely adopted reading program, now represents the so-called failed balanced literacy movement.

Here we have names and people superimposed onto the false war between phonics (Shanahan) and balanced literacy/whole language (Calkins).

Calkins has posted a defense of her programs, and Shanahan has recently posted a somewhat garbled defense of Reading First.

However, there is no value in mainstream media pointing fingers at Calkins, charging her with a self-serving agenda, while supporting Shanahan, who is conducting his own PR campaign for his role in the NRP. Let them without agendas cast the first stone. (Hint: There are plenty of agendas to go around on this.)

Yet, it is a negative review of Calkins’s program that has found a home in the mainstream media:

A new player has moved into the curriculum review market: Nonprofit consulting group Student Achievement Partners announced this week that it is going to start evaluating literacy curricula against reading research.

The group released its first report on Thursday: an evaluation of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading in grades K-5, a workshop style program designed by Lucy Calkins and published through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The seven literacy researchers who reviewed the program gave it a negative evaluation, writing that it was “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This last point quoted from the review is incredibly important to unpack, as is the urgency with which the mainstream media reports this review mostly uncritically.

First, there is a serious contradiction and hypocrisy when the mainstream media commit to a term such as the “science of reading,” demanding that reading instruction is always grounded in a narrow concept of “scientific” (the so-called gold standard of cognitive psychology, specifically), but participate in press release journalism.

We must ask about the review endorsed by EdWeek: Is it scientific? Has it been blind peer-reviewed? Do the authors have any agendas that would skew the findings?

And then we must argue: If mainstream journalists are now demanding that educators implement only practices supported by high-quality scientific studies, those journalists should not report on any reviews or studies that themselves are not also high-quality scientific studies.

This contradiction in which the media have lower standards for their reporting than for the agenda they are promoting is a window, however, into what is really going on, bringing us back to the conclusion about Calkins’s reading program.

All reading programs can and should be viewed through that conclusion: “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

In fact, like the Orwellian named Reading First, reading programs always put reading last because reading programs are inevitably linked over the past 40 years to the accountability movement; teachers and students have been disproportionately held accountable for implementing and following the programs and not for authentic reading.

Reading First did in fact fail, despite arguments to the contrary, because the bureaucracy allowed the natural corruption inherent in the market; funding for reading became inappropriately tied to specific reading programs and textbook companies using the label of “scientifically based” (a central element of No Child Left Behind and the NRP almost twenty years ago).

Reading was last in the Reading First scandal because the focus became adopting and implementing Open Court.

The real irony here is that the market/accountability dynamic is at the heart of why it makes perfect sense to conclude that Calkins’s program is “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

And the bigger irony is that whole language and balanced literacy were attempts to pull back from scripted and prescriptive program approaches to teaching reading and to provide philosophical and theoretical frameworks within which teachers could use their professional autonomy to shape reading instruction to the needs of “all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This is a much ignored truism found in John Dewey: In education, we must resist reducing philosophical and theoretical truths to fixed templates that then become not guiding principles but simplistic mandates to be fulfilled.

Children reading eagerly and critically—this is the real goal of teaching reading in our public schools; that is putting reading first, not any commercial program whether it be systematic intensive phonics or one promoted as balanced literacy.

Reanimating NRP and Reading First is, I concede, on its second round so I can hold out hope that a vigilant double tap may put these zombies back in the ground permanently.

None the less, I will remain anxious like Columbus, skeptical that we are safe.

See Also

Reading First: Hard to Live With—or Without, P. David Pearson

Pearson Reading First

Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

UPDATED: Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

UPDATE: Note Holly Yettick’s One Small Droplet: News Media Coverage of Peer-Reviewed and University-Based Education Research and Academic Expertise; see abstract:

Most members of the American public will never read this article. Instead, they will obtain much of their information about education from the news media. Yet little academic research has examined the type or quality of education research and expertise they will find there. Through the lens of gatekeeping theory, this mixed-methods study aims to address that gap by examining the prevalence of news media citations of evidence that has undergone the quality-control measure of peer review and expertise associated with academics generally required to have expertise in their fields. Results suggest that, unlike science or medical journalists, education writers virtually never cite peer-reviewed research. Nor do they use the American Educational Research Association as a resource. Academic experts are also underrepresented in news media coverage, especially when compared to government officials [bold aded]. Barriers between the news media and academia include structural differences between research on education and the medical or life sciences as well as journalists’ lack of knowledge of the definition and value of peer review and tendency to apply and misapply news values to social science research and expertise.

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York TimesAs Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:

Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.

Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.

Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.

Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.

On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).

This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.

Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.

And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over [1].

Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:

  • Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
  • Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
  • Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
  • The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
  • Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
  • However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.

First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.

Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).

And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.

Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.

We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.

There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric [2].

[1] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

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)

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 Poor, 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 Real Education Crisis?

For Education Week‘s Quality Counts 2015, Christina A. Samuels opens a piece on early reading with the following:

Children who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are widely seen as being in academic crisis. Educators are increasingly looking for actions they can take in the younger grades—even as early as preschool—to head off failure later in a child’s school career.

Framing 3rd-grade reading proficiency as a crisis is about as enduring (and suspect) as the uncritical belief in the literacy deficit among children raised in poverty.

Later in the article, Samuels notes that many states have implemented grade retention policies based on high-stakes tests in 3rd grade, adding:

Student retention as a part of a strategy to support early literacy has vocal critics as well as supporters. But no one is arguing against the importance of ensuring that children are reaching reading milestones throughout the early grades.

Modeling once again the central flaw of education journalism, Samuels represents grade retention as nothing more than a tug-of-war between “vocal critics” and “supporters”—with word choices that clearly skew the reader toward the more reasonable “supporters.”

Despite the intentions of this piece about the importance of early literacy in children, we must acknowledge that the real crisis in education is both how the media covers education and how politicians design and implement policy.

First, “crisis” is the worst possible description of any educational condition since a state of crisis forces urgency when deliberation and patience are warranted. Think about the differences between emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. (See a discussion of crisis here also.)

Impoverished children have overwhelming life conditions that inhibit their ability to learn at the same rates and in the same ways as their more affluent peers. Children in poverty do not need harsh and intense educational experiences (harsh and intense often characterize their lives, and are thus the conditions muting their learning); they do not need high-stakes tests and punitive consequences.

And that leads to the ultimate education crisis: Confusing grade retention with reading policy.

That is not only a crisis, but inexcusable since there is no debate about grade retention, despite the breezy framing above.

Decades of research show that grade retention is often harmful and other strategies are always more effective (Note: the evidence-based alternative to grade retention is not “social promotion,” the great ugliness tossed out by all who embrace grade retention).

I suppose the great irony here is that it appears many in the media and most political leaders are not capable of reading the research and have a really limited vocabulary themselves.

So let me make this simple: There is no crisis in reading, and grade retention hurts children.

Now let’s address and fully fund rich and evidence-based reading for all children throughout their formal education in our public schools and make genuine commitments to the lives of all children so those policies can work.

For Further Reading

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

Grade Retention Research

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

Keeping children back a year doesn’t help them read better

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.

References

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

Daily Kos: Living and Learning in Perpetual Crisis

Daily Kos: Living and Learning in Perpetual Crisis

What do the fiscal cliff and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have in common?

For the answer consider this scenario: An arsonist sets a home on fire, and then risks his life fighting the blaze—but the house eventually succumbs to the flames. The media and the public praise the arsonist a hero, choosing to consider the heroic effort to fight the fire while ignoring that he caused the disaster.

This scenario is not far-fetched and captures exactly the “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1996) in both the fiscal cliff discourse and CCSS advocacy.

America is trapped in a state of perpetual crisis, and that crisis mentality maintains the public gaze on the self-proclaimed heroic acts of corporate and political leaders without allowing time to consider that the conditions under which Americans live and learn are the result of the decisions of those in power.

continue reading at The Daily Kos