O, but if James Baldwin were here to respond to Campbell Brown, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee …
Let’s imagine …
I have asked this about the U.S. Secretary of Education: Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?
And a large part of the answer may be because the uncritical mainstream media not only buy that message, but actively perpetuate it. For example, David Leonhardt beats that drum in Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor:
The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” is inevitably associated with George W. Bush, who used it frequently. But whatever your politics, the idea has undeniable merit: If schools don’t expect much from their students, the students are not likely to accomplish much.
A new international study, set to be released Tuesday, argues that the United States has an expectation problem.
The U.S. does, in fact, have a low expectations problem, but it isn’t where Duncan and the media claim. Political leaders and journalists need to heed the old adage about pointing a finger (three are aiming back at you).
Just as another example, see Colleen Flaherty’s Dropping the Ball?—a call for higher education to jump on the Common Core bandwagon:
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is supposed to prepare K-12 students for higher education — but college and university faculty members and administrators remain largely removed from planning and rolling out these new assessments and standards. So argues a new paper from the New American Foundation, which urges colleges and universities to get involved in the Common Core to ensure the program ends up doing what it was supposed to do.
Both of these pieces suffer from the press release approach to journalism that insures presenting both sides as a mask for endorsing a solid status quo (and thus, not evidence-based) position: the “low expectations” myth and the standards-driven reform paradigm, both of which fail against significant bodies of research and scholarship.
So here are my responses sent to Leonhardt and Flaherty, as my commitment to speaking against the low expectations for U.S. media:
To Leonhardt (slightly edited):
This is evidence of the problem: Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor
But our only low expectations in the US are for political leadership (especially in education) and the media:
Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?
U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press
My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2
I have been an educator for 31 years, 18 of which as a high school teacher in rural SC. I know poverty, lived among it all my life. The claims in this study and in your piece are more of the blame the victim attitude that is corrosive in the US. We must do better.
Higher ed, in fact, needs to lead the evidence-based resistance to Common Core and the entire accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing.
As Mathis (2012) shows from an analysis of the standards movement, there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement; as well, standards in no way address equity, but have increased inequity.
Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity
The problem is more than CC as well: Paul Thomas: The Problem Isn’t Just Common Core, but the Entire Reform Agenda
The corrosive impact of accountability/standards/testing has already negatively impacted student learning, as Applebee and Langer have shown in relation to writing (see TCR: REVIEW: Writing Instruction That Works), but higher ed must recognize that this movement is also aimed at higher ed.
We should have been leading the resistance all along, but now we have even more vested interests in joining those who have unmasked the standards movement for what it is: not about teaching or learning, but testing in order to rank and sort (see Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing).
Yes, the U.S. as a society and through our public institutions—notably public education—must do a better job; we have too often failed.
But our low expectations problem rests solidly with what we are settling for in our political leaders and our mainstream media.
* I want to add that Colleen Flaherty responded to my email and plans to follow up. This is a rare positive response to my concerns, and I believe she should be commended for it.
Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:
In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.
Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.
As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”
Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.
This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.
The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).
Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.
Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity
by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors
Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).
As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:
“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.
Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)
A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.
When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).
Obama’s Failed Hope and Change
Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):
The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….
That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)
Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”
because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.
The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….
It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)
About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).
As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:
Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)
Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.
A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:
National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:
- Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
- Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
- Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)
With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:
Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….
In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)
The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.
Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.
More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:
But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.
It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.
Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….
They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:
They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)
This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Table of Contents
Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas
Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.
Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.
Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11
Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11
Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.
Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/
Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) firstname.lastname@example.org [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/
Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/
Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11
Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle
Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.
This Week in “Please Shut Up” should have been aimed at George Will and that he really needs to shut up about rape.
But, instead, let’s look at Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who has held forth on the Vergaras ruling in California:
The ruling was hailed by the nation’s top education chief as bringing to California — and possibly the nation — an opportunity to build “a new framework for the teaching profession.” The decision represented “a mandate” to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said….
Duncan, a former schools chief in Chicago, said he hoped the ruling will spark a national dialogue on a teacher tenure process “that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift.”
At a minimum, Duncan said the court decision, if upheld, will bring to California “a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”
“The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems,” Duncan said. (as reported by Michael Martinez)
Now, let’s consider the context. First, Arne Duncan has no education or experience in teaching as a profession. But, Duncan has a long list of political appointments:
In 1992, childhood friend and investment banker John W. Rogers, Jr., appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative, a program mentoring children at one of the city’s worst-performing elementary schools and then assisting them as they proceeded further in the education system. After the school closed in 1996, Duncan and Rogers were instrumental in re-opening it as a charter school, Ariel Community Academy. In 1999, Duncan was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff for former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.
CEO of Chicago Public Schools Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Duncan to serve as Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools on June 26, 2001….
Duncan was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate on January 20, 2009. [all emphasis added]
For the record, having no background as a teacher and then having spent his entire professional career as a political appointee depending on his privileged connections, Duncan has no appreciation for teaching or for workers’ rights.
And thus, this week, we must implore: Arne Duncan, please shut up.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
“Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost
While it appears I was right about Teacher Appreciation Week 2014, I was a tad bit off about the source of the Zombie Apocalypse or Armageddon: The world will not end because of PISA score rankings, but because of stagnant NAEP scores by high school students.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has just released a hot-off-the-press bumper sticker that celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week 2014 by acknowledging recent NAEP data:
What happens when inept political leadership (Note: The 21st century prerequisite for holding the position of Secretary of Education appears to be a gentle blend of an absence of expertise and outright dishonesty related to NAEP reporting) collides with press-release journalism  (like an asteroid slamming into the Earth)?
Well, the claim made above by Schneider (“a vice president at the American Institutes of Research who previously led the government arm that administered NAEP”)—a truly ugly claim about education and teachers that appears to have been accepted without any request for evidence (Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence).
NAEP, then, once again prompts handwringing about stagnant scores and achievement gaps—and there are always charts and graphs to make the point along with the usual insincere nod to “the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time”:
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement about the results, “We project that our nation’s public schools will become majority-minority this fall—making it even more urgent to put renewed attention into the academic rigor and equity of course offerings and into efforts to redesign high schools. We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as [a] nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students.”
Amongst the ugliness and baseless pontificating by political leaders are absent some key points that the media will fail (again) to uncover:
While I remain certain that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is a fundamental flaw in education reform, political leadership and the media are not doing us any favors either. This latest “high school achievement crisis” based on a rush to misread NAEP data is but more of the same—lamentably so as we certainly could do a better job even within the flawed test-based culture of U.S. education, as Matthew Di Carlo has outlined.
Childhood is steeped in a series of lies—what Kurt Vonnegut has labeled “foma,” although many of these lies are not so harmless: the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, work hard and be nice.
But one truism from our youths must be accepted as fact: Action speaks louder than words.
If we apply that to the USDOE, then we are likely to recognize just who is telling lies and about what:
Truth: The USDOE is the embodiment of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
For Further Reading
I love the smell of NAEPalm in the morning
 See also Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out.
Appointed and elected officials related to education have some important characteristics in common. Consider U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and South Carolina Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.
Neither have experience or education in the field of K-12 education, despite their primary responsibilities being related to K-12 education.
And because of their appointed (Duncan) or elected (Zais) position, they have a primary and nearly unchallenged voice in both the narratives about education and the policies implemented in public schools.
As well, since they have that access, Duncan and Zais often conduct tours and speeches promoted as informational or celebratory, but always use those masks to achieve something quite different: driving a set of ideologies and narratives that are mostly misinformation.
Superintendent Zais has been touring SC under the guise of celebrating successful schools in the state, but at each stop, he, instead, offers passive-aggressive and unsubstantiated claims directed less at the schools he appears to be praising than at other schools, teachers, and students.
Zais presents this pattern of misinformation in a commentary for The Greenville News (21 March 2014), which begins:
I am writing to set the record straight about public education in South Carolina.
The opening points made by Zais focus on his claim that funding and poverty levels are not the key determining factors in how successful schools are. To make that case he identifies two schools directly:
In Greenville County School District, Hollis Academy Elementary School has a poverty rating of 99 percent and received a grade of 97 percent, an A, on their federal report card. It’s one of the highest performing elementary schools in South Carolina. Welcome Elementary School is also in Greenville County. It has virtually identical demographics and received a grade of 47 percent, an F, on their report card.
Hollis Academy Elementary School (99.48 PI) and Welcome Elementary School (98.32) as high-poverty schools in the same school district (Greenville County) do appear to make Zais’s case, except he fails to identify the SC school report card data—ones that provide an important metric, “schools like us.”
On the 2013 school report cards (issued by the SC Department of Eduction which Zais heads), Hollis Academy Elementary School receives an absolute rating of “Average,” which is essentially typical of “schools like us” (Excellent, 0; Good, 9; Average, 73; Below Average, 37; At-Risk, 13):
On the same report card, Welcome Elementary School receives an absolute rating of “Average,” which is essentially typical of “schools like us” (Excellent, 0; Good, 10; Average, 85; Below Average, 43; At-Risk, 15):
Two points must be highlighted, if we seek to set the record straight: Hollis and Welcome are relatively similar in their composition and their outcomes; however, as the data above suggests (the numbers are different, note, in the range of “schools like us”), Hollis and Welcome are not identical in populations served.
Thus, the only way Zais can make his case is to cherry-pick data, conveniently omit data, and then make a really mean-spirited claim for which he offers no data:
The difference between high poverty schools that are excelling and those that are failing is neither funding, the education level of the parents, nor demographics. It’s the competence of the adults in the system. Where schools have capable principals and effective teachers, poor kids will learn.
The sweeping claims made by Zais, however, are not supported by the research base—and not once does Zais offer any evidence from research showing that “competence of the adults in the system” is a determining factor in student outcomes. Not once (notably because such evidence doesn’t exist).
Teacher quality (and VAM advocacy), “more with less,” funding doesn’t matter, and X practices and/or teacher quality can add “days of learning” or “years of learning”—all of these claims have been debunked:
Just as Duncan has continued a legacy among recent USDOE Secretaries of Education (Paige, Spellings), Zais represents the politics of misinformation in education reform that exposes our appointed and elected education officials as either incompetent or dishonest—neither quality suggesting that they should be driving our education narratives or policies.
Maybe we need a Khan Academy video series to help the public in the U.S. understand the term “free.”
When you are driving late at night, and you are in unfamiliar rural America in need of a hotel, you see a relatively rundown hotel with a sign announcing “FREE CABLE!”
Well, of course, if you stop and pay for the room, that cable is not “free” (the honest term would be “included”); the cost of that cable is included in the hotel’s operating expenses, which are covered by the rates charged customers.
You see, nothing is free in the consumer culture of the United States—even for those people who have been demonized as “freeloaders,” those receiving welfare or disability or some other access to funds that the U.S. public has deemed unfair (oddly, that doesn’t seem to apply to the uber-wealthy and their trust funds or inheritances, hmmm). If someone acquires anything in the good ol’ USA, somebody is paying for it (and somebody is profiting), and it is often the person who is told she/he is receiving it for “free.”
So we must be quite concerned about this: College Board Enlists Khan Academy to Provide Free Online SAT Prep.
Which is the Cool Whip on the dung pie being offered by the College Board—and led by David Coleman: New SAT To Bring Back 1600-Point Scale — With Optional Essay.
In short, don’t buy it, and especially important, don’t swallow it.
The 2016 SAT reboot is all nonsense, but as disturbing is the monstrosity that is forming as Common Core (another Coleman creation), the SAT and presumably other parts of the College Board (President and CEO Coleman), Pearson, and Sal Khan join forces like a really bad Hollywood production of Marvel’s The Avengers (wait, that has already happened).
Lest we forget, below are some reminders about Khan Academy, and I can recycle from my latest post on the SAT reboot: “No, it’s all nonsense, believe me. I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”
Part I: [From Schools Matter, March 12, 2012]
Ever wonder how you can become an educator, education expert, or education reformer?
Well, since 60 Minutes has bought into the most recent con-du-jour, the Khan Academy, let’s consider how people become educators.
How about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?
Peter Smagorinsky puts it best:
“Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.”
Or how about Bill Gates? This one is easy, to become an education expert or education reformer, amass billions of dollars.
And Michelle Rhee? Bypass the education establishment by not receiving any degrees in education, become a leader by entering the classroom through TFA, teach three years, and then attain your credibility by firing teachers and creating an education system built on fraudulent test data.
This brings us back to Sal Khan—whose wikipedia page identifies him as an “American educator.”
Pretty impressive considering he, like Rhee, Duncan, and Gates, has no degrees in education, and like Duncan and Gates, has no experience teaching.
But he got tired of his day job, started tutoring his relatives, made some videos, and now is a full-fledged educator. And according to CBS, he may be the future of education.
I don’t see myself grabbing billions any time soon, or having the connections Duncan and Rhee have to get on the appointment train.
So like Khan, I think I’ll just announce what I am and go from there…
I am a nuclear physicist…
[waits patiently for CBS to call]
Reconsidering the Khan Academy
The Best Posts About The Khan Academy
This Khan Academy History Video Is Just Awful
Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time
Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy
The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy
Khan Academy: Improving school by changing nothing
Part II: Why All the Khan-troversy? [Schools Matter, July 26, 2012]
At The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss has spurred a debate over the definition of slope—not exactly the sort of detailed intellectual stuff we might expect in a newspaper.
The discussion of the finer points of mathematics is more akin to the nuanced conversations you may find in a university math department or a scholarly journal. But the source of this controversy is Sal Khan and his Khan Academy—which leads us to our need to pull back from the slope debate and address just why is there a controversy about Khan?
I don’t know Sal Khan, and I recognize the inherent danger in making claims about anyone’s intent. On the surface, Khan’s drive to make educational videos accessible to more people has some elements of equity and social justice that I share, but those stated goals are deeply marred by the fact that the equity gap embedded in all technology appears likely to wipe out any access advantage Khan claims his academy offers.
This leads to one very important point about the Khan Academy: The problems with the Khan Academy are primarily couched in the many distorted and corrosive messages and assumptions that the Khan Academy perpetuates as well as how political, popular, and media responses to the Khan Academy deform the education reform debate. Here are the reasons for the controversy:
• Sal Khan directly and indirectly (through media messages about him and his videos) perpetuates a popular and flawed assumption that effective teaching is a direct and singular extension of content expertise. Khan’s allure is in part built on the misguided view in the U.S. that anyone who can do, can also teach. Khan has neither the expertise nor experience as a teacher to justify the praise and claims made about him or his academy. Khan is a celebrity entrepreneur, not an educator. [If Khan had created a series of free videos showing people how to do surgery, I suspect the response would be different, although the essence of the venture is little different.]
• The videos themselves are nothing more than textbooks, static containers of fixed content. Learning, then, is reduced to the acquisition of static knowledge. The videos reinforce that content is value-neutral (it isn’t), and the videos allow teaching and learning to remain within a transmissional paradigm that is neither new nor what is best for the purposes of universal public education in a free society. Whether a video, a textbook, or a set of standards, fixed content removes the agency from the teacher and the learner about what content matters. While the videos are offered as substitutes for lectures, Khan and those who support the academy appear unaware that even lectures in classrooms are reinforced by discussions—content is presented and then negotiated among teachers and students.
• Inherent in the allure of the Khan Academy is the naive faith that technology is somehow offering teaching and learning something new, something revolutionary. The blunt truth, however, is that technology has been heralded for that quality for a century now, and it simply isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Khan’s videos are no more revolutionary than the radio, TV, VHS player, or the laser disc. Technology is often, as with the Khan Academy, a tragic waste of time and energy that misleads us away from the very human endeavors of teaching and learning. Technology at its worst is when it further isolates the learner and learning—already a central problem with traditional classroom practices.
• Sal Khan as a celebrity and self-proclaimed educator feeds into and perpetuates the cultural belief that education is somehow not a scholarly field and that education is a failure because of the entrenched nature of the “education establishment.” Khan as an outsider hasn’t thought of anything that hasn’t already been considered by the many and varied scholars and practitioners in education. Does any field benefit from ideas and practices outside that field? Yes, that is not the issue. But Khan is but one of many of the leading voices heralded as educational revolutionaries (think Gates ad Rhee) who have either no or very little experience or expertise in education. The ugly truth is that if education is failing, that failure is likely because the scholars and practitioners in education have never had the primary voice in how education should be implemented. The great irony is that education scholars and practitioners (notably critical ones) are the true outsiders of the “education establishment.” If you want to know something about math and how to teach it, talk with my high school math teacher first, and then you may be able to decide how valuable Khan’s work is.
• The Khan Academy reinforces the misguided faith we have in a silver-bullet answer to complex educational problems. Education in the U.S. is not suffering from a lack of packaged content (in fact, our commitment to textbooks is one of the major problems in public education); education is burdened by social and education inequities that are far more complex than substituting classroom lectures with videos anyone can access (if that person has internet access and the hardware to view the videos). It is easier and less painful to praise the essentially empty solution Khan is offering than to confront the serious failures of inequity remaining in U.S. society and public education.
Without the fanfare and hyperbole, Khan’s quest to make content accessible online may have some real value—if Khan is willing to bring into that plan the expertise of education scholars and practitioners. Khan’s plan would certainly benefit from a strong dose of humility; a first step to real learning is to acknowledge what one does not know.
But Khan and his academy are likely doomed because of the feeding frenzy around him. The public and media have an unquenchable thirst for rugged individualism, a thirst that is blind, deaf, and ultimately corrosive; and Khan appears to present a simplistic message about how to save a very important but complicated public institution.
The controversy about Khan isn’t about the definition of slope, but the slippery slope of believing the hype because that is easier to swallow than the truth.
Note: See the critique by Christopher Danielson and Michael Paul Goldenberg for a more detailed explanation of problems I have identified above.
One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:
As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.
Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”
Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.
Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.
Let me offer a brief example.
Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.
If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.
The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.
I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.
Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.
When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before . Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).
The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position ) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading ) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.
Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?
Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.
Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism .
For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.
SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).
The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.
Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.
While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.
For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).
Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.
And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.
Rick VanDeWeghe, expanding on the work of Rick Wormeli, in 2007 confronted how the flawed accountability paradigm remains uncontested, but at the center of Teflon reform’s greatest failure:
This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 ). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.
In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)
Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.
The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.
When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.
For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:
There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)
And thus, Wormeli concludes:
Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)
Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.
 For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):
 Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).
 This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.
 See Freire.
 See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading
Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures
Paul L. Thomas
“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. . . .[T]he slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell (1946) warns in “Politics and the English Language.” Few examples are better for proving Orwell right than political language addressing the education of children in the U.S. But, as Orwell adds, “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”
Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education.
Beginning with the Reagan administration and perpetuated by Obama’s presidency are patterns of public speeches—crisis discourse and Utopian expectations—and educational policy that began with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” accelerated through Goals 2000, and codified without much critical concern as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Paige (Schmidt & Thomas, 2009).
Here, I will explore the neoliberal assumptions driving the language and policies related to education that came from the Obama administration and guided by Duncan. The examination will unpack Duncan’s speeches and the realities of the ideologies the administration supports through policy and public messages. The dynamic established through crisis discourse about the public education system, combined with Utopian expectations for those schools, helps mask the neoliberal assumptions embedded in what Freire (1998) calls “the bureaucratizing of the mind”: “The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated” (p. 111).
See also (which is being re-issued as an updated edition soon):
Thomas, P.L. (2011). The educational hope ignored under Obama: The persistent failure of crisis discourse and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 49-72). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Thomas, P.L. (2011). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. http://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=jiae
If Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has prompted outrage from a wide range of people, as Rebecca Klein reports, by invoking “white suburban moms,” as I have noted, the controversy is much more complex than “clumsy phrasing.”
I remain adamant about my concluding point concerning the racial components of Duncan’s comment and the responses to it: If white outrage is the only outrage that counts in the U.S., any victory won from that outrage is no victory at all.
But there is another component of the response that deserves the “conversation” Duncan claims he would like to see us embrace: Duncan is simultaneously the embodiment and the victim of a toxic combination of privilege, bureaucracy, and arrogance.
First, Duncan’s incompetence is no different than the incompetence exhibited by previous Secretaries, such as Margaret Spellings. Where has the outrage been about the national leaders of education having essentially no grasp of data or statistics? Or the likelihood that they feel compelled to protect their partisan politics regardless of the truth?
Next, Duncan’s most recent embarrassment must be placed in the larger context of the entire education agenda under Obama—an agenda characterized by Civil Rights discourse used with Orwellian aims of masking classist and racist policies impacting negatively and disproportionately black, brown, and poor children (“other people’s children”) as well as English language learners. Where has the outrage been about maintaining and expanding two separate education systems—one for the privileged children of our leaders and another for the impoverished and marginalized?
Duncan, then, is not an isolated failure as Secretary of Education, and his recent “clumsy phrasing” isn’t an aberration in his public discourse.
No, Duncan sits in a long line of failed bureaucratic education reformers, ripe for satire that borders on possibility.
Since Duncan has called for a return to a conversation, I want to repost here a simple request I made during the summer of 2013: A request that Duncan confront the wealth of evidence that refutes his Common Core advocacy.
Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence 
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears now to be assuming the mantle of self-righteous indignation—a tenuous perch for someone who is leading a field in which he has no experience or expertise.
As Valerie Strauss has reported, Duncan this summer lambasted news editors, berating them for failing to demand evidence for claims against Common Core.
Duncan, first, is striking an insincere pose that manufactures a false universe in which only evidence-based support for CC and Tea Party railings against CC exist. This conveniently ignores the growing legions of educators, academics, and scholars who reject CC, and actually have the evidence.
Since Duncan is demanding evidence, it is high time he practices what he preaches (let’s all pause here because that strikes me as a bit of lunacy, in fact, to expect a political appointee to live by the rules he imposes on others).
Secretary Duncan, please either confirm or discredit the following body of evidence that refutes any credibility for needing CC or that CC will work as education reform:
Evidence? Secretary Duncan, you can’t handle the evidence.
For Further Reading, Secretary Duncan:
Baker, B.D. & Welner, K.G. (2011). Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/productivity-research.
Bruce Baker and Kevin G. Welner