Category Archives: KIPP

Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Valerie Strauss has raised a key problem with the education reform movement in the U.S.: The central experts in the education system, teachers, are essentially ignored.

I have a long history now of rejecting the charter school movement and the “no excuses” ideology that is driving many charter schools. Because of my position, I have been criticized for not visiting KIPP schools and I have detailed why that falls short against my central point about the racism and classism inherent in “no excuses” ideology.

So I want to offer a connection between my position on charters and “no excuses” with listening to a teacher.

I received an unsolicited email from a teacher who has recently taught in a “no excuses” charter school; this is the teacher’s central point:

Their system does not work. Their philosophy is to teach the kids over extended hours at school. We taught from 8:00-4:00 every day. The teachers have added responsibilities on top of those hours. Then most children went to after school care where they continued teaching and received dinner [1]. Guess what our report card score is? It’s an F.

The children were worn out all the time. The parents expected us to take care of the children no matter what. One day I had a parent not pick up their child and I was expected to stay at school until their parents came for their child. After calling every number I had, no one arrived to pick him up until 7:15 at night.

I have never seen such chaos in all my years of teaching.

Disillusioned, this teacher has moved to a different school, but I find the story and impressions hit on exactly what is wrong with “no excuses” ideologies: the unnecessarily harsh school environments for students and teachers, the remaining disconnect among all the stakeholders, and the inevitable negative consequences of relying on accountability metrics to determine if a school is successful or not.

If you still feel compelled not to listen to me, then at least listen to this teacher.

[1] Please consider this in the context of the teacher’s experience: A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

Criticizing KIPP Critics

An early and consistent proponent of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, Jay Mathews has joined a rising group of KIPP advocates directly criticizing KIPP critics, offering two arguments: KIPP charter schools are not abusive or excessively authoritarian, and KIPP critics are prone to misleading hyperbole because they fail to visit the KIPP schools they criticize.

I have heard these concerns before, but in a previous example at Education Next, I had to raise my own caution [1] that if KIPP advocates will knowingly misrepresent critics to make their case, we may be well advised to be skeptical of the claims that there is now a softer side to KIPP.

Mathews, however, makes a balanced call for confronting whether or not KIPP schools practice what critics challenge and has posed a valid concern about KIPP critics not visiting actual KIPP schools. I want to address these concerns here, and also offer my own recommendations to KIPP advocates in the spirit offered at the end of Matthews’s piece: “KIPP welcomes visitors. Interested critics should stop by and see how it works.”

My concerns with and criticism of KIPP charter schools began in 2009, based on an Education Next article praising the “no excuses” ideologies of the schools (Whitman, 2008). That piece does exactly what I have done in my work criticizing KIPP: it associates KIPP practices with “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices, which are reinforced in KIPP’s own words, among its Five Pillars:

KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. Just as there are no shortcuts, there are no excuses. Students are expected to achieve a level of academic performance that will enable them to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges.

My initial criticism of KIPP charter schools as the recognizable brand among many “no excuses” charter schools spreading across the U.S. (and influencing practices in public and private schools that directly note they are modeling their practices on KIPP) was also reinforced by Whitman’s article that included, for example, American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), Oakland, CA, along with a KIPP school in a broader endorsing of “no excuses” charter schools.

Landsberg (2009) captured for me why the “no excuses” model was deeply troubling:

Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys’ restroom as punishment.

So my first request of Mathews and other KIPP advocates is that they offer clarification on the initial associations between KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools: If that association is flawed, are advocates in part to blame for that association? And if KIPP, either in those early associations or more recently, has distanced themselves from those associations, will KIPP and its advocates please detail that for critics and the public?

Here, then, is my central problem with KIPP advocacy and their criticism of KIPP critics. My criticism of KIPP is one example of my larger rejecting of “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices (please see “No Excuses” and the Culture of Shame: Why Metrics Don’t Matter). And I am not in any way concerned about KIPP outcomes because I refuse to fall into the trap of allowing the ends to justify the means. The claims of “miracles” associated with outcomes are discredited, and ultimately, I am not interested in test scores, graduation rates, or college admittance rates decontextualized from how children are being treated in the schools each day.

I appreciate and accept Mathews’s direct evidence from KIPP schools in DC, and accept his evidence of changes and hope that the success is valid and potentially illustrative of education reform more broadly.

But in his brief critique of KIPP critics, Mathews does not offer any evidence about my primary concern about how students are treated [2]—a concern that I do not limit to KIPP but to any and all schools (I reject zero-tolerance policies, for example, and their disproportionate and negative influence on urban schools and students).

A second request is that KIPP leaders and advocates help those of us criticizing KIPP for direct and indirect connections to “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices with what I believe are legitimate concerns based on, I admit, secondary evidence [3].

Here, then, are my remaining concerns:

  • When Gary Rubinstein accepted the KIPP invitation to visit actual schools, his responses to that visit and my interpretation of his visits do not change my position. Thus, visiting KIPP isn’t necessarily going to end criticism, but if Rubinstein’s impressions are misleading, I’d like some clarifications.
  • The public narrative around KIPP is based on embracing an authoritarian and highly structured model for high-poverty and minority students. Public schools have failed high-poverty and minority students in terms of disproportionate discipline and academic policies, including expulsion, suspension, failure, and retention; it appears by the evidence that KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools mirror those failures instead of alleviating them. The school-to-prison pipeline and the school-as-prison dynamic are key elements of the larger mass incarceration era; KIPP’s association with strict discipline, high attrition, and selectivity are problematic for those of us who wish to break those cycles.
  • Public and charter schools are experiencing an increase in segregation of students by race and class; KIPP appears to be a part of that troubling pattern, again not a solution.
  • A powerful reinforcement of both my criticism of charter schools implementing “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and policy as well as my direct criticism of KIPP schools is Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope. Like Whitman’s Education Next piece, Carr associates KIPP charter schools in New Orleans with other non-KIPP charter schools. As well, she details how KIPP and the other “no excuses” charters do in fact practice the sort of discipline policies about which I am critical: (1) a strict discipline code that includes SPARK (Carr, p. 11) and SLANT (making and maintaining eye contact, shaking hands, and other highly regimented behavior demands on students), (2) the Bench as as shaming discipline technique (Carr, p. 23), (3) a demanding culture that stresses “no excuses” for teachers and students (Carr, pp. 42-43), focusing almost exclusively on minority students from poverty (and not being implemented in white or affluent schools), and (4) depending so heavily on structure and external rewards that students falter once they enter college and have those elements removed (Carr, p. 188).
  • KIPP, specifically in its relationship with Teach for America (see Waiting for “Superman” and Carr), contributes directly and indirectly to several harmful and inaccurate claims about teaching and education: teaching quality is primarily a function of being demanding and not of experience or expertise (although this appears true only when dealing with high-poverty minority students since white and affluent students tend to have experienced and certified teachers), and public schools are failing because of corrupt unions (although non-union states n the U.S., mostly in the South, are routinely ranked at the bottom of educational quality).

If and when these concerns above are not applicable to KIPP specifically, I extend an invitation to KIPP leaders and advocates to set the record straight, and I offer my support when they do. I will apologize and join in with setting that record straight.

That I haven’t visited KIPP schools doesn’t discount my ability to raise concerns about large and evidence-based examples of how almost all types of schools are mis-serving children. In all of the issues above, I also criticize public education (re-segregating of schools, inequitable discipline policies, inequitable teacher assignment, tracking—just to name a few concerns).

But since much of my direct criticism of KIPP is based on secondary evidence, I must ask: Is Carr misguided in her depiction of KIPP in New Orleans, or is that situation unlike many or even some KIPP schools, such as the ones visited by Mathews in DC?

I think we all need to know and then remain vigilant about painting any set of schools with too wide a brush.

I also want to stress that Mathews’s concern about hyperbole is important because that hyperbole is unlikely to benefit either advocates or critics. KIPP leaders and advocates depend on the “miracle” school myth as much as critics depend on provocative prison [4] or concentration camp comparisons. I suspect both sides would be wise to set such hyperbole aside.

For my role in criticizing KIPP, I want to stress that I am not as concerned about criticizing any specific type of school as much as I am about exposing where we fail and calling for ways to reform all education so that we are more likely to address inequity in the lives and schools of children.

In that quest, I have no right or desire to misrepresent KIPP, but as I have detailed above, I have ample evidence that KIPP schools are one part of a set of large and pervasive problems that are not unique to KIPP.

I plan to take up Mathews on his invitation to visit some KIPP charter schools when I am in DC this fall, and I hope KIPP leaders and advocates will accept my invitations here to address my remaining concerns and not misrepresent my claims (as Education Next allowed) or simply discount my concerns since I have yet to walk the halls of a KIPP school.

References

Landsberg, M. (2009, May 31). Spitting in the eye of mainstream education. Los Angeles Times online. Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/31/local/me-charter31

Whitman, D. (2008, Fall). An appeal to authority. Education Next, 8(4). Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://educationnext.org/an-appeal-to-authority/

[1] Again, for the record, the Education Next article misrepresented me three times in the opening, and when I contacted a co-author, Bob Maranto, he admitted in an email exchange the article was unfair, promising to correct the piece and never following through on that promise. The ugliest and demonstrably untrue aspect of that piece was the charge “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart,” which my body of work directly disputes and about which I directly alerted Maranto that I in no way hold that position.

[2] Mathews notes that his Work Hard. Be Nice. does address discipline and his rebuttal to KIPP critics.

[3] I have direct experience with local public and charter schools that practice “no excuses” ideology and narratives, but openly acknowledge, that since no KIPP schools are in my area, I haven’t visited the KIPP schools in Arkansas or DC (or elsewhere). I don’t believe, still, that disqualifies me from rejecting “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices; as well, my criticism of KIPP within that larger concern is only unfair if KIPP isn’t embracing and practicing both. As I discuss above, the evidence I have suggests KIPP is a part of that larger dynamic.

[4] And let’s not ignore that Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze have offered substantial examinations of why all schools and prisons are comparable.

On Children and Kindness: A Principled Rejection of “No Excuses”

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

—Thomas Jefferson

The Furman University spring commencement in 2008 was mostly overshadowed by two events—the speech presented by President George W. Bush and the protest and controversy surrounding that speech in the weeks leading up to and during the speech.

A concurrent controversy to Bush’s commencement address centered on the large number of faculty at the center of the protest, a protest named “We Object.” South Carolina is a traditional and deeply conservative state, and Furman tends to have a distinct contrast between the relatively conservative student body and the moderate/leaning left faculty. The Bush protest of 2008 exaggerated that divide—notably in the reaction of the Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow (CSTB) organization and an Op-Ed in The Greenville News by two Furman professors opposing the protesting faculty.

The conservative faculty view expressed in the Op-Ed is important because it characterized the protesting faculty as post-modern, the implication being that protesting faculty held liberal/left views that were grounded in relativism (a common use of “post-modern” in public discourse). In other words, the implication was that protesting faculty were motivated by an absence of principle, or at least only relative principle.

The irony here is that the protesting faculty (among whom I was one, despite my having not yet achieved tenure) tended to reject both the post-modern label and post-modernism; in fact, our protests were deeply principled.

Having been born and raised in SC and having now lived my entire life and taught for over thirty years in my home state, I am an anomaly in both my broad ideology (I lean Marxist—although it is more complicated than that) and my principles (I am deeply principled in ways that contrast with the dogma and tradition of my treasured South).

My focal point during the Bush debate and protest (my name was frequently in news accounts and in rebuttals from CSTB) was an exaggerated but representative example of the tension that my ideology and principles create in my daily work at Furman, particularly in the classroom.

For example, I often teach an introductory education course, and one topic we address in that course very much parallels the more publicized conflicts surrounding Bush’s appearance at the 2008 graduation—corporal punishment.

When the topic comes up, students tend to support corporal punishment, reflecting the general embracing of the practice throughout the South. Many students are quick to qualify their support for corporal punishment with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” justification of their Christian faith.

I often explain to my students that I was spanked as a child in the 1960s, but that I had not spanked my daughter (who often announced to her friends that I didn’t spank, including a story of the one time I did when she ran away from us in the mall as a small child). I then add that a considerable body of research [1]  has shown that corporal punishment has overwhelming negative consequences and only one so-called positive outcome (immediate compliance).

My principled stance against corporal punishment creates noticeable tension with students’ dogmatic faith in corporal punishment. This same dynamic occurs when I confront the public and political support for grade retention, which I regularly refute—again based on a substantial body of evidence (which parallels in many ways the research on corporal punishment in that both practices have some quick and apparently positive outcomes but many long-term negative consequences).

As the Jefferson quote implores, in my positions on corporal punishment and grade retention, I stand like a rock.

And this helps explain my principled stance rejecting “no excuses” ideologies and practices as well as deficit views of children, race, and class.

Some Issues Beyond Debate

Three ideologies are powerful and foundational in both traditional educational practices and recent education reform agendas over the past thirty years—paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives (of children and impoverished people).

Traditional schooling is typified by behaviorism: in the grading, in the classroom management. Punishing and rewarding are types of paternalism and are justified by the belief that children are lacking something that some authority must provide.

Ironically, education reform committed to accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing is really no reform at all since many of the reform policies are simply exaggerated versions of traditional practices—both of which are grounded in paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives.

“No excuses” practices (represented by KIPP charter schools, but certainly not exclusive to that chain or charter schools since the ideology permeates almost all schooling to some degree) match social norms in the U.S., and in fact, aren’t very controversial. Yet, since “no excuses” policies are part of the dominant reform agenda, advocates feel compelled to justify those policies and practices.

To be honest, critics of “no excuses” ideology are in the minority and tend to be powerless. Nonetheless, Alexandra Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose have published an article in Education Next designed to refute “no excuses” critics and to justify KIPP charters narrowly and “no excuses” ideology more broadly.

While I will not elaborate here on this, advocates of deficit-based strategies aimed at children in poverty and popularized by Ruby Payne tend to make parallel arguments as those endorsing “no excuses” schools and practices.

Corporal punishment, grade retention, paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives of children, class, and race—all of these ideologies and concurrent practices conform to social norms of the U.S. (politicians and the public support them overwhelmingly) and tend to be discredited by large and robust research bases. All of these ideologies and practices also produce the appearance of effectiveness in the short term but create many long-term negative outcomes.

Paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives reflect and perpetuate racism, classism, and sexism—even though many of the people who are and would be negatively impacted by these beliefs are often actively participating in and supporting institutions, policies, and practices driven by all three.

History has revealed numerous examples of people in reduced circumstances behaving in ways that were counter to their and other people’s freedom and equity. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale remains to me one of the best literary cautionary tales of that disturbing and complicated reality; Atwood dramatizes the historical reality of women contributing to the oppression of women. As a powerful work of scholarship, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details well that a culture of mass incarceration (an era paralleling the accountability era in education) has reduced the lives of many minorities living in poverty to the point that they appear to support practices that, in fact, as Alexander describes, constitute the new Jim Crow—as I have explained while connecting mass incarceration with education reform:

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.

And all of this, I suppose, may have been more than many people wanted to read for me to reach my big point, which is this:

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against “no excuses” practices.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against deficit perspectives.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against paternalism.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against corporal punishment.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against grade retention.

Period.

Especially when it concerns children, the ends can never justify the means so I couldn’t care less about test scores at KIPP schools.

Can we debate these? Sure, but if you want to debate me in order to change my mind, you would be wasting your time.

I am approaching 53, and I remain a work in progress. There is much I do not know, and there remains much that I am deeply conflicted about. But there is one thing that I know deep into my bones—children are wonderful and precious.

Children are wonderful and precious and there isn’t a damned thing you can show me or argue that can justify anything that is unkind to a child.

Not one damn thing.

For the adults who disagree with me and believe I am wrong or fool-headed, I love you too. But if you force me to choose, you lose.

Few things fill me with confidence in my principles like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut and I see the same world, have the same regrets about that would, but also share the same idealistic hope. In the beginning of his Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut blends confessional memoir with his fiction as he explains how the novel came to have the full title Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

While visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his experience at the firebombing of Dresden:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. (p. 14)

And from this Vonnegut promised Mary not to glorify war and to add the extended title.

There is something sacred about childhood, about innocence. Something sacred that deserves and should inspire all humans toward kindness.

I see little evidence we are inspired, but I remain committed to the possibility of the kindness school—and even a kind society populated by kind people.

Nothing there to debate.

For Further Reading

anyone lived in a pretty how town, e. e. cummings

[1] See Is Corporal Punishment an Effective Means of Discipline? (APA); and Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life.

When a “Visit” Trumps Expertise and Experience: A New Deal

I have already addressed the distortions and outright misinformation in a new piece on Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools. But a few issues raised in this claim of a “softer” side to “no excuses” practices need to be addressed more fully.

I have discovered that “no excuses” advocates now routinely push any critic about whether or not the critic has visited a KIPP school; note this paragraph early in the Education Next piece:

Also not surprisingly, KIPP and other No Excuses schools have no shortage of critics. Furman University education professor P. L. Thomas, who admitted in a recent speech at the University of Arkansas to never having been in a No Excuses charter school, complains in a widely referenced 2012 Daily Kos post that in such schools, “Students are required to use complete sentences at all times, and call female teachers ‘Miss’—with the threat of disciplinary action taken if students fail to comply.” Regarding KIPP in particular, Cambridge College professor and blogger Jim Horn, who admits to having never been inside a KIPP school, nonetheless has referred to KIPP as a “New Age eugenics intervention at best,” destroying students’ cultures, and a “concentration camp” at worst.

Horn and I are immediately marginalized because of the claims that we have never visited a KIPP school (for the record, I responded to a question about whether I have visited an Arkansas KIPP school, which I have not).

The push on the need to visit KIPP schools has raised two issues for me.

First, there are now abundant publications offering detailed evidence from many different people who have visited KIPP schools: Sarah Carr’s excellent Hope Agains Hope, Gary Rubinstein’s series on his visits, and Russ Walsh’s blog post, just to note a few.

Visiting a KIPP or “no excuses” school, it seems, doesn’t really change anything for those of us who hold foundational stances that reject the central ideology of “no excuses” practices. I reject authoritarianism regardless of the type of school in which it is practiced, and I abhor deficit perspectives, again regardless of the school type.

Whether I visit a school or rely on my analysis of other people’s details or data from “no excuses” schools, I am quite capable of drawing valid and evidence-based conclusions. And, frankly, I don’t have to ever set a foot in an actual school.

My best proof of this is the Education Next piece itself. While the authors believe they are discrediting the concerns of “no excuses” critics, the piece reinforces my central reasons for rejecting the policies, including the disturbing picture of three students participating in “Stereotypical Geek Day.” The picture itself feels exploitive and the activity, ridiculous.

That “no excuses” start out strict and ease off doesn’t excuse the abusive nature of the practices. And the larger concerns I have are not addressed at all: that minority and high-poverty students are disproportionately served and segregated from privileged and white students, that students wear uniforms, that “no excuses” schools tend to be selective and create a great deal of attrition, that KIPP schools are prone to hire Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified teachers for minority and impoverished students).

I remain opposed to all charter schools, not just “no excuses” charter schools, as well, and I reject any form of school choice.

Nothing in the Education Next article addresses that “other people’s children” are being served and treated in ways that affluent children are not; and that is my biggest complaint.

All children should have access to the sorts of schools and policies that affluent children enjoy. Period.

Second, however, is the more urgent issue I see with the insistence that “no excuses” critics visit “no excuses” schools: “no excuses” advocates and education reformers are overwhelmingly people who have never taught in public schools.

Is the new reformer message that visiting a school trumps having actually taught in a school?

If so, I propose a compromise:

No one can criticize a “no excuses” school unless she/he has visited the school and no one can lead education reform unless she/he has taught in public school.

“No excuses” advocates and reformers, deal?

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Andrea Gabor examines the rise of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, raising an important question in the subhead: “Are New Orleans’s schools a model for the nation—or a cautionary tale?”

Gabor ends the piece suggesting caution:

But even for students who don’t fall through the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive systems surrounding charter schools taken public education in the direction we want it to go? Anthony Recasner, a partner in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans charter experiment and his disappointment in the distance that remains between today’s no-excuses charter-school culture and the movement’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a child psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to become CEO of Agenda for Children, a children’s advocacy organization. The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is one of the few African-American charter leaders in New Orleans; his own experience as a poor child raised by a single parent mirrors that of most students in the charter schools. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

In my review of Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope for The Wilson Quarterly, I found Carr’s work to suggest, also, that New Orleans was yet more evidence of the failures of charter schools, “no excuses” ideology, and Teach for America. Below is my expanded review:

Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a story of place.

Readers see first a map of eastern New Orleans, the 9th and 7th Wards, Treme, French Quarter, and Algiers—situating the three schools at the center of the story, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Renaissance, SciAcademy, and O. Perry Walker.

As a Southerner, I thought of Yoknapatawpha County maps in William Faulkner’s novels. That connection predicted accurately the narrative Carr shapes about the intersection of place, race, class, education, and America’s pervasive market ideology. New Orleans public schools have a long history of failure connected to the city’s high poverty rates and racial diversity, but post-Katrina New Orleans has experienced a second flood, a school reform surge characterized by charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and education reformers from outside the city and the South:

But in 2007…Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District [RSD], helped bring hundreds of young educators to the region. Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 after a decade spent leading the Chicago and Philadelphia schools….Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency.

An education journalist for over a decade (The Chronicle of Higher EducationNew Orleans Times-Picayune), Carr weaves a vivid story of twenty-first century education reform, examining the influx of charter schools in New Orleans as options designed to address high-poverty and minority students. The stories are drawn from principal Mary Laurie, student Geraldlynn Stewart, and TFA recruit and Harvard graduate Aidan Kelly in the wake of Katrina recovery efforts from 2010 through 2012.

The place, New Orleans, is Carr’s touchstone for six parts, each divided among The Family (Geraldlyn’s family), The Teacher (Kelly), and The Principal (Laurie). Geraldlyn expresses ambivalent attitudes about her KIPP education as it contrasts with her mother’s efforts to provide Geraldlyn a better life. Kelly personifies the “missionary zeal” of TFA recruits, but also offers insight into those ideals as they clash with the reality of day-to-day schooling. Dedicated to her city, Laurie was a successful public school educator before Katrina, but after the hurricane, the RSD laid off public school teachers and dissolved the teachers unions; charter schools gave Laurie a new start, but not without complications.

Carr crafts some of the best education reform journalism to date, presenting a critical eye on charter schools (specifically KIPP), TFA, and a market-based model supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Charter schools and TFA represent reform policies that view public school traditions, teacher certification and teachers unions, as root causes of poor academic outcomes. To eradicate those in-school problems, choice and competition are embraced as the primary tools for reform. Carr’s examination, however, calls these claims and solutions into question.

Education journalism often offers slogans such as “miracle schools” and “grit” (Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Whatever It Takes, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars, and Jay Matthews’s Work Hard. Be Nice.). But Carr allows KIPP and TFA advocates to speak for themselves. For example, Kelly reveals his unwavering idealism as it intersects the no-excuses ideology of TFA and KIPP, organizations that attract and encourage privileged young people who believe they can change the world through their own determination.

Instead of silver bullets, Carr presents a nuanced analysis: “A trap confronted schools: If they took the students with the most intense needs, their numbers might suffer. But the state would shut them down if their numbers suffered too much and for too long. Then who would take the neediest?” That analysis is driven by stories. At the end of Part II, Rebirth, Carr quotes Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School:

There are so many stories, she said one afternoon, sitting on a bench under Walker’s breezeway. “I worry that they will get lost, that there’s no one to tell them. My big fear is that all folks will remember is that when Katrina hit, people had to ride in on their white horses and save the children of New Orleans.” She shuddered at the thought.

Yet, stories are often ignored in twenty-first century education after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB, school and teacher accountability has increased, based primarily on high-stakes tests and judged against data such as the achievement gap. Later, a comment from Laurie stands at the center of the education reform movement that Carr’s narrative confronts, unmasks, and exposes powerfully:

“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”

To this, we might add that Laurie’s concern about her charter school in the crucible of New Orleans education reform parallels the often-ignored problem at the center of universal public education in the U.S., a system designed to serve any and all students with equity regardless of background.

While Carr challenges education reform and the limits of good intentions among KIPP and TFA advocates, she also grounds her confrontations in a larger commitment: “At times, both KIPP’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest critics insult and demean the very families they purpose to protect by assuming they, and they alone, know what is best for other people’s children.”

Furthermore, by echoing educator Lisa Delpit’s recognition that many reforms ask less of “other people’s children” by narrowing their learning to worksheets and test-prep, Carr forces critics of KIPP and TFA to examine why many low-income minority parents not only choose no-excuses schools but also enthusiastically encourage no-excuses practices. No-excuses ideologies place an emphasis on authoritarian discipline and a culture of intense personal responsibility that includes teachers and students being held accountable for outcomes that critics warn are beyond the control of either. No-excuses advocates, including parents, embrace the exact paternalism critics challenge.

Carr offers a skeptical voice against education reform mirroring “disaster capitalism” in New Orleans, when markets generate profit from the “blank slate” of disasters (see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein). Yet, she offers nuanced praise when reformers succeed. For example, students are told at KIPP orientation a Cherokee legend about everyone embodying a good and bad wolf. That lesson gains a life of its own among students: “The fable’s power over their actions seemed to suggest that appealing to a person’s high self, no matter whether they are young teenagers or adults, carries more influence than rules or demerits ever could.”

In the middle of the book, Carr discusses Woodson Middle School, supplanted by a KIPP campus after FEMA declared the building irreparable because of Katrina. Woodson Middle had been named for Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s. Woodson “represented an evolution, and radicalization, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy, which emphasized black empowerment through political rights and educational attainment”—a “philosophy…[that] stood in stark contrast to the view of contemporary school reformers” such as Michelle Rhee (TFA recruit, former chancellor of education in Washington DC, and founder of Students First), KIPP advocates, and TFA supporters.

Hope Against Hope is a cautionary tale about ideology—reformers honoring market forces over democratic values by stressing indirect reform through choice and competition instead of reforming directly public institutions when they fail to achieve equity—and the muted and ignored agency of people in their own lives.

As Carr acknowledges in the Prologue, her narrative details “competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America,” but anyone seeking silver bullets, trite slogans, or popular assumptions will find “inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.” Like Kathleen Nolan confronting zero-tolerance policies in Police in the Hallways (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Carr shows that simple solutions cannot remedy complex problems.

Where claims of “miracle” schools and no-excuses mantras stumble, Hope against Hope soars in its bittersweet humanity, the rich and uncomfortable tapestry of living and learning in poverty in twenty-first century America.

Carr’s Epilogue offers advice for reforming education reform: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community—not as a result of its submission.”

To understand U.S. education and education reform, then, Carr’s story of New Orleans is an essential place to start.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

Trayvon Martin was killed in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie.

In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless.

But, as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

I am also compelled to speak beyond Trayvon, about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” Others, African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the US was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders.

Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males are too often results in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty-plus years.

Just as Wright’s and Ellison’s fiction captures the African American male experience at mid-twentieth century, continuing to speak to the complex and entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing, Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—African American males remain ominous and powerful messages in 2013.

In 1963, Ellison spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized as insufficient language skills):

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

But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex”:

As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are. Let us also have a little bit of respect for what we were and from whence we came. There is a bit of the phony built into every American. This is inevitable in a conscious society that has developed as swiftly as ours has. We are faced with endless possibilities for change, for metamorphosis. We change our environment, our speech, our styles of living, our dress, and often our values. So, in effect, we become somebody else–or so we are tempted to believe–and often we act as though we have no connection with our past. We are all tempted to become actors, and when we forget who we are and where we are from, our phony selves take command.

Finally, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored:

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

Baldwin addressed teachers in that same year, 1963: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within.”

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children:

Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes….

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved  to be treated like animals.  Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

Ultimately, education, for Baldwin, is revolutionary, an act of social justice:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them –  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents.

No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook shooting has beneath the Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

Post-Katrina New Orleans: Disatser Capitalism Feeds on Poverty and Racism

Drawing from her Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr asks, Can school reform hurt communities?—focusing on New Orleans:

New Orleans may be the extreme test case, but reforms like these are reshaping public education across the country. The movement is rooted in the notion that “fixing” schools is the strongest lever for lifting communities out of poverty. The criminal justice and health care systems may be broken, living-wage jobs in short supply, and families forced to live in unstable or unsafe conditions. But the buck supposedly stops in the classroom. Thus teachers can find themselves charged with remedying an impossibly broad set of challenges that go far beyond reading at grade level.

Post-Katrina New Orleans represents a crucible for both disaster capitalism and the neoliberal (privatization) agenda driving education reform. After the hurricane devastated New Orleans, the city was swept clean of its teacher workforce (overwhelmingly African Americans constituting a significant percentage of the black middle class), its public schools, and its teachers union so that Paul Vallas could rebuild the school system with charter schools and Teach for American recruits, inexperienced and uncertified teachers who are often white, affluent, and transplants to New Orleans from all across the US. Carr highlights the tensions in this human-made flood of the city:

But most explanations have focused on the radical overhaul of the city’s education system: the expansion of independent charter schools (which more than 80 percent of New Orleans public school children now attend); a greater reliance on alternative teacher training programs like Teach for America; and the increased use of test scores to determine whether educators should keep their jobs and schools should stay open….

This mentality has attracted ambitious, talented young teachers from across the country. But it has also risked turning teaching into a missionary pursuit. At a few of the charter schools I have reported on over the last six years, less than 10 percent of the teachers came from New Orleans or were older than 35. “I think a lot of people who come to New Orleans want to change New Orleanians,” said Mary Laurie, a veteran school administrator and principal of O. Perry Walker High School….

This disconnect can manifest itself in ways both small (as when a teacher fails to recognize a popular New Orleans term, like “beaucoup” for “a lot”) and large (as when a teacher can’t grasp what students are going through at home).

Yet, while New Orleans has become a feast for disaster capitalism (see Archer and Bessie’s graphic journalism here, here, and here), political and public concern for the city and for the greater assault on public education, children and families living in poverty, and teachers remains essentially absent.

In her critical analysis of education reform in New Orleans, Kristen Buras concludes: “Critical research and ongoing activism in multiple spaces are crucial. What is currently happening in New Orleans is not socially conscious capitalism. It is simply unconscionable” (p. 324).

That New Orleans, public schools across the US, teachers, teachers unions, and families in poverty remain under assault while political leadership, advocacy representatives, and the public remain focused on baseless calls for Common Core and next generation testing as well as equally baseless attacks of teacher education exposes some harsh realities about the US: profit and the privilege of wealth matter, but workers, children, and the impoverished do not.

There is simply no other lesson one can draw from New Orleans today.

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

In 2011, Jim Taylor entered the poverty and education debate, asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire/education entrepreneur Bill Gates a direct question*:

I really don’t understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world’s second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?

Taylor’s discussion comes to an important element in the debate when he addresses Gates: “Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can’t find solutions,” explains Taylor, adding. “You’re obviously trying to solve public education’s version of the classic ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.”

Here, recognizing the education/poverty debate as a chick-or-egg problem is the crux of how this debate is missing the most important questions about poverty—and as a result, insuring that Duncan, Gates, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and other corporate reformers are winning the argument by perpetuating the argument.

The essential questions about poverty and education should not focus on whether we should address poverty to improve education (where I stand, based on the evidence and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or whether we should reform education as the sole mechanism to alleviate poverty (the tenant of the “no excuses” ideology found at Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charters); the essential question about poverty is: Who creates and allows poverty to exist in the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history?

The Conservative Nature of Power

As a basic point of logic, any organized entity—a society, a business, a school—has characteristics that are either created or tolerated by those in power controlling that organization. All entities are by their nature conservative—functioning to maintain the entity itself. In other words, institutions and their norms resist change, particularly radical change that threatens the hierarchy of power.

In the U.S., then, poverty exists in the wider society and performs a corrosive influence in the education system (among all of our social institutions, our Commons) because the ruling elite—political and corporate leaders—need poverty to maintain their elite status at the top of the hierarchy of power.

While the perpetual narratives promoted by the political and corporate elite through the media elite have allowed this point of logic to be masked and ignored in American society, we must face the reality that people with power drive the realities of those without power. Yes, the cultural narratives driven by the elite suggest that people trapped in poverty are somehow in control of that poverty—either creating it themselves due to their own sloth, that they somehow deserve their station in life, or failing to rise above that poverty (and this suggestion allows the source of poverty to be ignored) from their own failure to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

But that narrative has no basis in evidence—since those without power have control of that which creates the conditions benefiting the elite. The powerful allow those without power to have some token or artificial autonomy—as parents with children—in order to create the illusion of autonomy to keep revolt at bay; this is why the political and corporate elite use the word “choice” and perpetuate the myth that all classes in America have the same access to choice.

Poverty as Necessary for Current Hierarchies of Power

How does poverty benefit the powerful in the U.S.?

  • U.S. cultural narratives depend on the Utopian elements of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom. Those ideals form the basis for most of the cultural narratives expressed by the political and corporate elite in the U.S. Poverty works as the Other in those narratives—that which we must all reject, that which we must strive to avoid. If the Utopian goals, including eliminating poverty, is ever achieved, however, the tension between the working-/middle- class and those in poverty would be eliminated as well, exposing the artificial perch upon which the ruling elite sit. The necessity of poverty works both to keep us from attaining the Utopian goals and to make the Utopian goals attractive.
  • Poverty contributes to the crisis motif that keeps the majority of any society distracted from the minority elite benefiting disproportionately from the labor of the majority. Crises large and small—from Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists to the War on Drugs to teen pregnancy to the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis—create the perception that the average person cannot possibly keep these crises under control (crises that would plunge otherwise decent people into the abyss of poverty) and, thus, needs the leadership and protection of the elite. The majority of average people can only be carried to the promised land of Utopian peace and equality by the sheer force of personality held by only a few; these ruling elite are the only defense against the perpetual crises threatening the ideals we hold sacred (see below for how we identify those elite).
  • Along with Utopian promises and the refrain of crisis, the ruling elite need the pervasive atmosphere of fear—whether real or fabricated—in order to occupy the time and energy of the majority. [1] Poverty becomes not just a condition to be feared, but also those people to be feared. The cultural narratives—in contrast to the evidence—about poverty and people living in poverty connect poverty and crime, poverty and drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence, poverty and unattractiveness, and most of all, poverty and the failure of the individual to grasp the golden gift of personal freedom afforded by the United States.

Just as we rarely consider the sources of poverty—who controls the conditions of our society—we rarely examine the conditions we are conditioned to associate with poverty and people living in poverty. Are the wealthy without crime? Without drug abuse? Without deceptions of all kinds? Of course not, but the consequences for these behaviors by someone living in privilege are dramatically different than the consequences for those trapped in poverty.

The ruling elite have created a culture where we see the consequences of poverty, but mask the realities of privilege.

Winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair, and winners need losers in order to maintain the status of “winner.” The U.S., then, is a democracy only as a masking narrative that maintains the necessary tension among classes—the majority working-/middle-class ever fearful of slipping into poverty, and so consumed by that fear that they are too busy and fearful to consider who controls their lives: “those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” [2]

In the narrow debate about poverty and education, we are being manipulated once again by the ruling elite, within which Duncan and Gates function, to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem of poverty/education so that we fail to examine the ruling elite creating and tolerating poverty for their own benefit. By creating the debate they want, they are winning once again.

And that success derives in large part from their successful propaganda campaign about the value of testing.

The Meritocracy Myth, Science, and the Rise of New Gods

Now that I have argued for shifting the discourse about poverty and education away from the chick-and-egg problem to the role of sustaining and tolerating poverty for the benefit of the ruing elite, let’s look at the central role testing plays in maintaining the status quo of power in the U.S. And let’s build that consideration on a couple pillars of evidence.

First, despite decades committed to the science of objective, valid, and reliable standardized testing, outcomes from standardized tests remain most strongly correlated with the socio-economic status of the students. As well, standardized tests also remain biased instruments.

Next, more recently during the thirty-year accountability era, the overwhelming evidence shows that standards, testing, and accountability do not produce the outcomes that political proponents have claimed.

Thus, just as the poverty/education question should address who creates and allows poverty and why, the current and historical testing obsession should be challenged in terms of who is benefiting from our faith in testing and why.

The history of power, who sits at the top and how power is achieved, is one of creating leverage for the few at the expense of the many. To achieve that, often those at the top have resorted to explicit and wide-scale violence as well as fostering the perception that those at the top have been chosen, often by the gods or God, to lead—power is taken and/or deserved.

“God chose me” and “God told me” remain powerful in many cultures, but in a secular culture with an ambiguous attitude toward violence (keep the streets of certain neighborhoods here crime-free, but war in other countries is freedom fighting) such as the U.S., the ruling elite needed a secular god—thus, the rise of science, objectivity, and testing:

[A] correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications, and rules; from which it extends it effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity. [3]

As I noted above, testing remains a reflection of the inequity gap in society and the high-stakes testing movement has not reformed education or society, so the rising call for even more testing of students, testing based on nationalized standards and used to control teachers, must have a purpose other than the Utopian claims by the political and corporate elite who are most invested in the rising testing-culture in the U.S.

That purpose, as with the necessity of poverty, is to maintain the status quo of a hierarchy of power and to give that hierarchy the appearance of objectivity, of science.

Standards, testing, and accountability are the new gods of the political and corporate elite.

Schools in the U.S. are designed primarily to coerce children to be compliant, to be docile; much of what we say and consider about education is related to discipline—classroom management is often central to teacher preparation and much of what happens during any school day:

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. [4]

In education reform, the surveillance of students, and now the surveillance of teachers, is not covert, but in plain view in the form of tests (and even Gates calling for cameras in all classrooms) allowing that surveillance to be disembodied from those students and teachers—and thus appearing to be impersonal—and examined as if objective and a reflection of merit.

Testing as surveillance in order to create compliance is central to maintaining hierarchies of power both within schools (where a premium is placed on docility of students and teachers) and society, where well-trained and compliant voters and workers sustain the positions of those in power:

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes. [5]

The political and corporate elite in the U.S. have risen to their status of privilege within the “scientifico-legal complex” that both created that elite and is then perpetuated by that elite. As I noted above, the winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair and will work to maintain the rules that have produced their privilege.

The Expanded Test Culture—“The Age of Infinite Examination”

Foucault has recognized the central place for testing within the power dynamic that produces a hierarchy of authority:

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish. [6]

Thus, as the rise of corporate paradigms to replace democratic paradigms has occurred in the U.S. over the last century, we can observe a rise in the prominence of testing along with how those tests are used. From the early decades of the twentieth century, testing in the U.S. has gradually increased and expanded in its role for labeling, sorting, and controlling students. In the twenty-first century, testing is now being wedged into a parallel use to control teachers.

Those in power persist in both cases—testing to control students and testing to control teachers—to claim that tests are a mechanism for achieving Utopian goals of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom, but in both cases, those claims are masks for implementing tests as the agent of powerful gods (science, objectivity, accountability) to justify the current hierarchy of power—not to change society or education: “[T]he age of the ‘examining’ school marked the beginnings of a pedagogy that functions as science.” [7]

Foucault, in fact, identifies three ways that testing works to reinforce power dynamics, as opposed to providing data for education reform driven by a pursuit of social justice.

First, testing of individual students and using test data to identify individual teacher quality create a focus on the individual that reinforces discipline:

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. [8]

This use of testing resonated in President Obama’s first term as Secretary Duncan simultaneously criticized the misuse of testing in No Child Left Behind and called for an expansion of testing (more years of a student’s education, more areas of content, and more directly tied to individual teachers), resulting in: “We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification.” [9]

As Giles Deleuze confirms in “Postscript on the Societies of Control”:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (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)

Next, testing has provided a central goal of sustaining the hierarchy of power—“the calculation of gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given ‘population.’” [10] Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

What tends to be ignored in the testing debate is that some people with authority determine what is taught, how that content is taught, what is tested, and how that testing is conducted. In short, all testing is biased and ultimately arbitrary in the context of who has authority.

And finally, once the gaps are created and labeled through the stratifying of students and teachers:

[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc. [11]

Poverty and Testing—Tools of the Privileged

Within the perpetual education and education reform debates, the topics of poverty and testing are central themes (poverty is no excuse, and better tests are always being promised), but we too often are missing the key elements that should be addressed in the dynamic that exists between poverty and testing.

Yes, standardized tests remain primarily reflections of social inequity that those tests make possible, labeled as “achievement gaps.”

But the central evidence we should acknowledge is that the increased focus on testing coming from the political and corporate elite is proof that those in privilege are dedicated to maintaining poverty as central to their hierarchy of authority.

Standards, testing, accountability, science, and objectivity are the new gods that the ruling class uses to keep the working-/middle-class in a state of “perpetual anxiety,” fearing the crisis of the moment and the specter of slipping into poverty—realities that insure the momentum of the status quo.

* Reposted and revised/updated from earlier publication at Truthout.

References

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See Foucault’s discussion of “perpetual anxiety” (p. 144) in “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Ibid., p. 170.

[4] Ibid., p. 189.

[5] Ibid., p. 195.

[6] Ibid., p. 197.

[7] Ibid., p. 198.

[8] Ibid., p. 199.

[9] Ibid., p. 200.

[10] Ibid., p. 202.

[11] Ibid., p. 203.