In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).
These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.
My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.
Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.
One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.
These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.
Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.
Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.
Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.
First, some context.
As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.
In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.
Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.
Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.
The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.
Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:
Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.
Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?
Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:
This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.
For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)
New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)
As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).
My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.
I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.
Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:
You’re talking as a scholar. I respect that. I’m talking as a person living in a specific community with a specific lived reality. I’m hoping the respect can be mutual.
Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.
Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.
Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.
Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”
This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.
So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.
The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.
Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses[emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.
Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:
Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.
Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.
By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”
I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.
Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.
There is a disturbing but predictable formula when you combine the University of Arkansas (and dig a bit to the Walton money funding the Orwellian-named Department of Education Reform) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter chain that results in, at best, careless misinformation or, at worst, brazen deception.
Let’s start at the ironic end to a 2 August 2017 press release on the relationship between UofA and KIPP:
“KIPP helped me to not only be adaptable, but to stay motivated,” she said. “I think an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ best describes my KIPP experience,” Walton said. ” ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.'”
The irony is that the sentiment ascribed here to Frost’s poem is a common misreading that parallels how KIPP and charter advocates impose their ideology onto what we know about KIPP/charter schools in the service of the brand and not the students (noting here how this press release allows the former KIPP student* to do all the heavy lifting).
Misreading and mis-teaching this iconic poem fail in one extremely important way: ignoring that the speaker in Frost’s poem repeatedly notes that the two roads are the same: “as just as fair,” “Had worn them really about the same,” and “And both that morning equally lay.”
The poem actually stresses that making choices is mostly unavoidable and certainly builds everyone’s fate, but the poem is also a satire about regretting choices, as Orr explains:
Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside—an impulse that Frost equated with the romantic predisposition for “crying over what might have been.” Frost, Thompson writes, believed that his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and would protest, ‘Stop teasing me.’”
Therefore, Frost’s much mangled poem offers us two lessons missed by the UofA/KIPP agenda: (1) there is almost no difference between or among types of schools (charter v. public or private v. public), and (2) the claims made by KIPP and other charter advocates are far more complex than they seem on the surface (as is the poem).
KIPP is correct that schools that only count students who complete 12th grade will have inflated scores compared to KIPP that counts students who complete 8th grade. But what KIPP doesn’t mention is that the fairest way to make a comparison to the 9% number is to start counting at 5th grade. KIPP actually has a pretty big attrition between 5th and 8th grade so the true ‘gold standard’ is really not used by anyone. All the numbers are inflated. KIPPs might be inflated less than the others, but it still is so they can whine that the others are cheating worse than they are on this statistic, but they should admit that they are doing it too, though to a lesser degree.
This most recent press release from UofA/KIPP is yet another example of how charter advocacy and the entire education reform agenda are awash in misinformation, steering the rampant misreading of these reforms by politicians and the public.
I fear that like the satirized speaker in Frost’s poem, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence”: When you see “miracle” claims that are too good to be true, well, they are not true.
Shame on UofA and KIPP for continuing to traffic in such lies.
* NOTE: Certainly, two important points must be made about this student’s experience: (1) Everyone can fairly celebrate her success and pride in that success, while (2) an anecdote based on one person’s experience cannot prove or disprove any sort of generalizations. Thus, this student ascribing her success to KIPP in no way makes that true, even though she genuinely feels that way.
What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….
I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)
Among K-12 educators and the general public, terms such as “colonialism,” “critical pedagogy,” and even “racism” may seem merely academic—ideas teased out among scholars in their ivory towers. However, as Emdin carefully details and interrogates, vulnerable populations of students (mostly black, brown, and poor) as well as the teachers charged with serving those students experience daily the realities of “white folks’ pedagogy” that demands assimilation and compliance from those students.
For vulnerable populations of students, formal schooling at the K-12 levels, Emdin argues, is stunningly similar to “[t]he Carlisle School [that] employed a militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to the white norm” (p. 4). Then and now, many educators participating in education-as-assimilation were and are motivated by good intentions (consider Teach For America core members today).
Emdin focuses his work on how all educators (including white folks who teach in the hood) should reconsider their views of race and social class while teaching the “neoindigenous,” his term for students of color and living in poverty who are currently the target of re-segregation in “no excuses” charter schools.
For White Folks arrives as more voices are pushing against education reform that claims to serve vulnerable populations while mis-serving them. Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.” And Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:
In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.
Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:
Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.
At the core of Emdin’s experiences as a student of color, a teacher of color, and a scholar as well as teacher educator is his antidote to the failures of both traditional education and the recent thirty years of education reform, reality pedagogy:
Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goals of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. (p. 27)
Echoing and refining Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy concepts of teacher-student and student-teacher, Emdin carefully walks the reader through his own journey to embracing and practicing reality pedagogy while detailing in very concrete ways what this looks like in real classrooms with real students and teachers.
I could argue that Emdin’s book is a wonderful critical pedagogy primer, and that could mislead you into thinking his is just more of the “merely academic”—but this book certainly is not that.
This recommendation and review cannot adequately cover everything Emdin accomplishes—and I really don’t want to take away from educators and anyone who cares about education and children, especially vulnerable populations of children, reading carefully Emdin’s own words—but I want to highlight a few key reasons to consider carefully For White Folks:
First, Emdin’s reality pedagogy is both a call for embracing culturally relevant education with the neoindigenous and a powerful argument for the essential elements of how all teachers should teach all students.
This book in total is an outstanding entry point to confronting stereotypes about race and class while also stepping away from deficit perspectives about neoindigenous students as well as teaching and learning in general.
Emdin speaks to a possible revolution in education that rejects accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests in order to embrace holding everyone responsible for teaching children; this is about authentic and challenging student-centered education in the name of individual and community liberation.
Reality pedagogy seeks ways in which students and their teachers can form a classroom and school cosmopolitanism that is unlike the inequities of their surrounding communities, states, and country: “cosmopolitanism is an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (p. 105).
The many practical aspects of Emdin’s work forces teachers to reconsider daily practice with the neoindigenous and all students: instruction, content, evidence of student learning, technology, pop culture, and social media. I could also say this is a great methods primer, but again, that could be misleading.
Emdin’s For White Folks is often a confessional memoir in which Emdin speaks to his own experiences as a black male student rendered invisible, but who became an agent of “white folks’ pedagogy” when he began to teach. Much of this book is about his transformation that has become teacher education and teaching as activism—activism in the name of neoindigenous and all students.
In his brief conclusion, Emdin shares his own touchstones for teaching, and in one he strikes a note we cannot, we must not ignore:
The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206)
NOTE: As I read, I found myself stuck at the beginning of Chapter 1 because my copy of For White Folk is an early printing that names the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as Bigger Thomas, who is actually the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. After I posted about Emdin’s book on the NCTE Connected Community, I heard from another ELA teacher concerned about the error. I reached out to Emdin, who explained this was an editorial error to be corrected in newer printings. Please don’t let this mistake distract from Emdin’s great work and scholarship.
I am participating as a discussion leader and speaker for a day on diversity at the University of South Carolina 14 April 2016. Below are my notes which may be of value to some addressing race and class in both social and educational contexts.
In his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that in the United States, there was “no caste here.” Justice Harlan was rejecting the idea that American society operated to assign preordained outcomes to individuals based upon classifications, including racial classifications. This Article questions whether Justice Harlan’s aspirational assertion accurately reflects contemporary American education. Identifying: (1) multiple classification mechanisms, all of which have disproportionate racial effects, and (2) structural legal, political, and practical impediments to reform, the Article argues that the American education system does more to maintain the nation’s historical racial hierarchy than to disrupt it. This is so, the Article suggests, despite popular agreement with the casteless ideal and popular belief that education can provide the opportunity to transcend social class. By building the framework for a broad structural critique, the Article suggests that a failure to acknowledge and address structural flaws will preclude successful comprehensive reform with more equitable outcomes.
My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.
Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”
And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.
In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:
Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….
And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.
Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.
And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.
Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.
Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.
However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.
The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racismTa-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).
What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.
What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.
Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.
White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.
That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.
Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.
Political leaders and the mainstream media feed two enduring claims to the public, who nearly universally embraces both: Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.
Education appears significant within race, but not the avenue to overcoming racism. Well educated blacks earn more than less educated blacks, but blacks and whites with the same education reflect significant race disparities favoring whites (Bruenig, 24 October 2014):
Rarely do we admit stunning data on race/education inequity. Blacks with some college have similar employment opportunities as whites with no high school diploma (Closing the Race Gap):
But certainly effort (grit and perseverance) matters more than simple accidents of a person’s birth? Actually, no (Bruenig, 13 June 2013):
We are left, then, with having to admit that the evidence is overwhelming that these are baseless cultural myths (possibly ideals we should aspire to, but certainly not the state of our society): Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.
Grit and education narratives serve as veneer for white and wealth privilege.
Anthony Cody has now confronted the relentless and uncritical mainstream media fascination with grit in his The Resilience of Eugenics, linking claims about the importance of grit, the ability to identify students with grit, and the push to instill grit in certain students (brown, black, and impoverished, mainly) with Eugenics.
Cody’s argument has deep roots among many of us who have argued for quite some time that charter movements such as KIPP and grit arguments are not sound educationally, scientifically, or ethically. In fact, we have demonstrated that this entire package of narratives and policies is essentially racist and classist.
It is indeed the case that social mobility in the US is very low. This is easiest to see by looking at class-based education disparities, given that education is meant to be the thing that leads to social mobility.*
College attendance rates map directly on to parental income, with only 20% of the poorest children in college at age 19 compared to 90% for the richest children.
But the formula that Bruenig reveals, especially in chart form, is central to clarifying that accident of birth tends to trump significantly effort; life status of adults is built on access, opportunity, and privilege (or disadvantage): Home status leads to educational access and thus ultimately to adult status. [*My argument is that instead of crediting educational attainment as the key to adult success, educational attainment is a marker for home privilege, the valid source of adult success.]
Consider then the evidence:
Bruenig concludes: “Quite naturally then, even for reasons beyond these, a child’s eventual position in the social structure is heavily linked to that of their parents.”
Update 2: U.S. as “self-perpetuating class system”
As you can see, white families are much wealthier than black and hispanic families at every education level. More than that, all white families, even those at the lowest education level, have a higher median wealth than all black and hispanic families, even those at the highest education level. The median white family with an education level below high school has a net worth of $51.3k, while the median black and hispanic family with a college degree has a net worth of $25.9k and $41k respectively.
Although there were negligible differences among the racial groups in how frequently boys committed crimes, white boys were less likely to spend time in a facility than black and Hispanic boys who said they’d committed crimes just as frequently, as shown in the chart above. A black boy who told pollsters he had committed just five crimes in the past year was as likely to have been placed in a facility as a white boy who said he’d committed 40.
More recent statistics from the Department of Justice show that the juvenile justice system has continued to treat black boys more harshly. Although the overall number of cases in juvenile court has declined sharply since 2008, blacks still account for a third of cases in juvenile court, far more than their share of the population.
Racial inequality in economic outcomes, particularly among the college educated, persists throughout US society. Scholars debate whether this inequality stems from racial differences in human capital (e.g., college selectivity, GPA, college major) or employer discrimination against black job candidates. However, limited measures of human capital and the inherent difficulties in measuring discrimination using observational data make determining the cause of racial differences in labor-market outcomes a difficult endeavor. In this research, I examine employment opportunities for white and black graduates of elite top-ranked universities versus high-ranked but less selective institutions. Using an audit design, I create matched candidate pairs and apply for 1,008 jobs on a national job-search website. I also exploit existing birth-record data in selecting names to control for differences across social class within racialized names. The results show that although a credential from an elite university results in more employer responses for all candidates, black candidates from elite universities only do as well as white candidates from less selective universities. Moreover, race results in a double penalty: When employers respond to black candidates, it is for jobs with lower starting salaries and lower prestige than those of white peers. These racial differences suggest that a bachelor’s degree, even one from an elite institution, cannot fully counteract the importance of race in the labor market. Thus, both discrimination and differences in human capital contribute to racial economic inequality.
Overall, these results suggest that employers strongly value a degree from an elite university but also discriminate against candidates with black names. An additional area of inquiry is how these variables work together. For instance, can black candidates close the gap with white candidates when they have a degree from an elite university compared to a degree from a less selective university?
In figure 3, I examine total employer responses across race and college selectivity. These results suggest a tiered pattern of responses: White candidates with a degree from an elite university have the highest response rate (17.5 percent), followed by black candidates with a degree from an elite university (12.9 percent) and white candidates with a degree from a less selective university (11.4 percent),11 and finally black candidates with a degree from a less selective university have the lowest response rate (6.5 percent).12 Thus, a white candidate with a degree from an elite university can expect an employer response for every six résumés submitted, while an equally qualified black candidate must submit eight résumés to receive a response; white candidates with a degree from a less selective university need to submit nine résumés to expect a response, while a similar black candidate needs to submit 15 résumés to receive a response.
College-educated families usually earn significantly higher incomes and accumulate more wealth than families headed by someone who does not have a four-year college degree. The income- and wealth-boosting effects of education apply within all racial and ethnic groups. Higher education may also help “protect” wealth, buffering families against major economic and financial shocks and mitigating adverse long-term trends. Based on two decades of detailed wealth data, we conclude that education does not, however, protect the wealth of all racial and ethnic groups equally.
Compared to their less-educated counterparts, typical white and Asian families with four-year college degrees withstood the recent recession much better and have accumulated much more wealth over the longer term. Hispanic and black families headed by someone with a four-year college degree, on the other hand, typically fared significantly worse than Hispanic and black families without college degrees. This was true both during the recent turbulent period (2007-2013) as well as during a two-decade span ending in 2013 (the most recent data available).
Not only that, but the earnings gap between poor and rich college-educated kids is huge, and it grows over the course of a career. Right after college, poor kids earn about two-thirds as much as rich kids, on average. But by mid-career, the typical college grad from a rich family is earning close to $100,000, while the grad from a poor family is making around $50,000.
For both the races tested, there was a difference of about 6 percentage points between the response rates for graduates of state schools and those of elite schools. But that gap widens to 11 percentage points when you compare white elite college graduates to black graduates from the state schools. And it narrows to just 1.5 percentage points, within the margin of error, between white state school graduates and black graduates of prestigious schools.
University of Michigan sociologist S. Michael Gaddis, who conducted the study, expected a gap between elite and state colleges, he tells Quartz, and he expected a gap between black and white applicants overall. He did not expect, however, to see that even among elite schools’ graduates, there was a big gap between whites and blacks.
“If we really think that education is the great equalizer, then someone who reaches the pinnacle of that system…should be rewarded pretty equally,” Gaddis says. “I would have been surprised, to be honest with you, to see no gap at all. But to see that the gap for Harvard and the other elite applicants was basically the same was very discouraging.”
Figure 2 shows the annual average unemployment rates for men and women aged 16 and older by race and ethnicity at the start of the recession, at the end of the recession, and for 2016. Black and Hispanic women and men have higher unemployment rates than White women and men in each period. Unemployment rates remain higher in 2016 than in 2007 for most groups. Only Black men have an unemployment rate in 2016 comparable to 2007, but the unemployment rate in 2016 remains more than twice as high for Black men (9.1 percent) compared to White men (4.4 percent). After seven years of recovery, Black men’s unemployment rate is comparable to White men’s unemployment rate (9.4 percent) at the official business cycle trough. Similarly, Black women’s unemployment rate in 2016 (7.8 percent) is comparable to the unemployment for White women (7.3 percent) at the low point in the current business cycle.
Racial inequality in wealth is rooted in historic discrimination and perpetuated by policy: our analyses show that individual behavior is not the driving force behind racial wealth disparities. Typical black and Latino households that attend college and live in two-parent households still have much less wealth than similarly situated white households. Black and Latino households that include a full-time worker have much less wealth than white households with a full-time worker, and only slightly more wealth at the median than white households where the only person employed works part time. Differences in spending habits also fail to explain wealth disparities between black and white households.
Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.
Is the white working class losing economic ground because of policies intended to improve the lives of black people? Anxiety and resentment among some white voters about those policies certainly seemed to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign last year, with its populist, ethno-nationalist message.
The problem with this belief is that it is false. The income gap between black and white working-class Americans, like the gap between black and white Americans at every income level, remains every bit as extreme as it was five decades ago. (This is also true of the income gap between Hispanic and white Americans.)…
Conservatives like Charles Murray tend to blame either social welfare programs for sapping initiative and keeping black people poor, or black people themselves for being less intelligent than whites, or a “pathological” culture that now manifests itself in the white working class as well.
But the historical pervasiveness and contemporary persistence of racism in America offer more than adequate explanations for what should be considered a scandalous state of affairs in regard to race-based economic inequality.
Education levels don’t make much of an impact on the high wage gap between Black women and non-Hispanic white men. While more education corresponds with higher wages for both Black women and white men, Black women still make between 61 and 66 cents on the dollar compared to their counterparts at every education level. African-American women have to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to make as much as white men who didn’t finish college.
What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.
In this report, we address ten commonly held myths about the racial wealth gap in the United States. We contend that a number of ideas frequently touted as “solutions” will not make headway in reducing black-white wealth disparities. These conventional ideas include greater educational attainment, harder work, better financial decisions, and other changes in habits and practices on the part of blacks. While these steps are not necessarily undesirable, they are wholly inadequate to bridge the racial chasm in wealth.
In the United States, attending a selective liberal arts college is often a sign of success. Human capital theory assumes graduates from these colleges share similar outcomes, in terms of employment and further education. This article reports, findings from a national (US) survey of liberal arts college students who graduated between 2012 and 2014. It finds significant differences in the immediate post-graduation outcomes of students based on family background. Using a Bourdieusian lens of capitals and habitus, the article links these different outcomes to differential experiences while in college, expectations, and parental resources. As in the public sector, classed pathways operate to produce differential outcomes for students of small liberal arts colleges. The article also demonstrates the continuing role of family-based material resources after graduation, and how these are used to differentiate students even when holding similar amounts of social and cultural capital.
This article demonstrates how class origin shapes earnings in higher professional and managerial employment. Taking advantage of newly released data in Britain’s Labour Force Survey, we examine the relative openness of different high-status occupations and the earnings of the upwardly mobile within them. In terms of access, we find a distinction between traditional professions, such as law, medicine, and finance, which are dominated by the children of higher managers and professionals, and more technical occupations, such as engineering and IT, that recruit more widely. Moreover, even when people who are from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering high-status occupations, they earn 17 percent less, on average, than individuals from privileged backgrounds. This class-origin pay gap translates to up to £7,350 ($11,000) lower annual earnings. This difference is partly explained by the upwardly mobile being employed in smaller firms and working outside London, but it remains substantial even net of a variety of important predictors of earnings. These findings underline the value of investigating differences in mobility rates between individual occupations as well as illustrating how, beyond entry, the mobile population often faces an earnings “class ceiling” within high-status occupations.
The persistence of racial disparities in employment outcomes across levels of education is troubling. While a tighter labor market has helped to reduce the black unemployment rate, even that has not been enough to eliminate multiple layers of racial inequality in the labor market, as we have shown here and as we summarize in Figure C. In particular, the fact that the country’s most highly educated black workers are still less likely to be employed than their white counterparts, and when they are employed, are less likely to be employed in a job that is consistent with their level of education, strongly suggests that racial discrimination remains a major failure of an otherwise tight labor market.
While Blacks and Latinos have made progress in educational attainment, their odds of having a good job are not as good as those of White workers with the same level of education, reflecting persistent racial disparities in the workforce. In fact, White workers are more likely than Black or Latino workers to have a good job at every level of educational attainment.
Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.
Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.
Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.
Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.
Education Has Failed Research, Historically
John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.
Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.
Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:
Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)
But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.
Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.
The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)
Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.
“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).
By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued
Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence
The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).
Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.
When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.
Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.
We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.
As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.
LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.
LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.
Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.
And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.
There are moments, however, when I hope.
One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.
But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”
So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?
The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:
I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.
And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.
At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.
When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”
The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.
We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”
Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.
Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.
No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.
Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”
But billionaires buying the appearance of credible scholarly research on education reform would not go very far without the blind allegiance of press release journalism (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).
And all of those factors combined reveal the Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public.
An increasing number of parents who shop around before choosing a school for their children are opting for charter schools because they like the academic environment. But they might not be aware that those same schools also are giving the public a bigger bang for their buck than traditional schools.
Research at the University of Arkansas shows that charter schools in 30 states are neck-and-neck with traditional schools on eighth grade standardized tests. But they achieve those scores for significantly less money.
Imagine what they might do if charter schools were funded equitably.
Or better yet, imagine what we could do in our public schools if the mainstream media didn’t continue to follow blindly the lead of billionaires determined to dismantle those schools.
About that “Research at the University of Arkansas,” which the P&C could have easily found by just googling, let’s consider a critique by Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, who first notes the flaws in similar claims found in an earlier report about charter schools from the same source:
I wrote a critique of that report pointing out how they had made numerous bogus assumptions and ill-conceived, technically inept comparisons which in most cases dramatically overstated their predetermined, handsomely paid for, but shamelessly wrong claims.
The previous report proclaiming dreadful underfunding of charter schools leads to the low hanging fruit opportunity to point out that even if charter schools have close to the same test scores as district schools – and do so for so00000 much less money – they are therefore far more efficient. And thus, the nifty new follow up report on charter school productivity – or on how it’s plainly obvious that policymakers get far more for the buck from charters than from those bloated, inefficient public bureaucracies – district schools.
After detailing the repeated flaws in the report cited as credible by the P&C, Baker concludes:
Yes – that’s right – either this is an egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude, or this new report is a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data. So which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I guess either is possible.
Oh… and separately, in this earlier report, Kevin Welner and I discuss appropriate methods for evaluating relative efficiency (the appropriate framework for such comparisons)…. And to no surprise the methods in this new UARK report regarding relative efficiency are also complete junk. Put simply, and perhaps I’ll get to more detail at a later point, a simple “dollars per NAEP score” comparison, or the silly ROI method used in their report are entirely insufficient (especially as some state aggregate endeavor???).
And it doesn’t take too much of a literature search to turn up the rather large body of literature on relative efficiency analysis in education – and the methodological difficulties in estimating relative efficiency. So, even setting aside the fact that the spending measures in this study are complete junk, the cost effectiveness and ROI approaches used are intellectually flaccid and methodologically ham-fisted.
But if the measures of inputs suck to begin with, then the methods applied to those measures really don’t matter so much.
To say this new UARK charter productivity study is built on a foundation of sand would be offensive… to sand.
Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.
Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.
But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism , consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).
First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:
If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).
Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public . But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism .)
Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:
@plthomasEdD I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the study is credible, but we both note the significant criticism of the methods.
My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).
As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.
All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:
The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)
Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)
More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)
Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”
The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology .
So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:
When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)
Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.
The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)
“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism .
Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):
Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.
“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”
Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).
One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.
What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.
The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.
 Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).
Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches
 I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.
 As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.
 Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.
educator, public scholar, poet&writer – academic freedom isn't free