In the second half of AMC’s The Walking Dead Season 5, the main characters and viewers discover Alexandria, introducing into the dystopian landscape a utopian  possibility.
This new setting raises, as Erik Kain explains, a different set of dangers, expressed openly by several characters: “The first danger will be the invitation of a warm bed and a warmer meal. Rick, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn and the rest all risk becoming as soft and weak and fat as their new hosts.”
Rick and his crew, then, are determined to remain vigilant against the creeping allure of becoming soft—having spent years now hardening themselves against the Social Darwinism of the zombie apocalypse.
In this dystopia, zombies are pervasive, and the possibility of any return to so-called normalcy appears gone. Rick, Carol, and Daryl, at least, seem certain that the relief of Alexandria is short-lived, if not entirely illusion.
Other than being key elements in education reform over the last 10-30 years, what do all of the following have in common?:
School choice formats: vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools.
“No excuses” ideologies and policies.
“Grit” narratives and research.
No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Opting out of NCLB.
Value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and pay; calls to fire “bad” teachers (such as the bottom 5%, reminiscent of stack ranking).
Standards and standardized tests as part of high-stakes accountability.
School report cards.
3rd-grade retention based on high-stakes tests.
School and district take-over policies such as the RSD in New Orleans and ASD in Tennessee.
A common set of threads run through the accountability era: Assumptions that educational outcomes are the result of low effort by schools, teachers, and students; and thus, the need for incentives, competition, and overall accountability.
So my answer to my question above is that education reform is essentially manufactured austerity, resulting in educators, parents, and students being conditioned—like the main characters in The Walking Dead—to be hard in order to survive a dystopian world (a world that functions like New Orleans in a state of disaster capitalism).
The problem? The dystopia of the zombie apocalypse is fiction, and although humans are never going to achieve utopia, we in the more so-called advanced countries in the world (notably the U.S.) are coming very close to being able (if anyone had the political will) to create a world in which austerity is nearly absent.
That would be a world of community and collaboration, equity and trust—essentially nothing like the dystopias being created in our public school system by education reform.
And let me highlight once again the most disturbing element that represents my generalization: using VAM to evaluate, retain/dismiss, and pay teachers creates a system in which each teacher must seeks ways in which her/his students can beat other children in other teachers’ classroom in order to survive and thrive in the zombie apocalypse of education reform.
There is a stark reason zombie narratives are popular in the Western world, cultures in practice dedicated not to democracy and equity, but to Social Darwinism and consumerism—a dog-eat-dog existence that we at least unconsciously recognize in the zombie, the living dead trapped in a constant state of consuming simply to be consuming, not as nourishment.
Manufactured austerity feeds disaster bureaucracy, and as such, education reform is not about reforming education, but feeding disaster bureaucracy, as DeLeuze details:
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….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the 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 [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)
“[N]ever finished with anything”—like a new set of standards and new high-stakes tests every few years?
Over the past thirty years or so, parental choice has been promoted through a variety of market formats (vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools), and then accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests have increasingly been morphed from academic incentives to financial incentives—starting with school report cards and exit exams for students before expanding to linking teacher retention and pay to student test scores and even now calling for adding teacher education to the value-added mania.
Many have begun to confront the negative impact of focusing high-stakes accountability on test scores, but those concerns tend to be about narrowing the curriculum and expectations by teaching to the test or about the lack of credible research supporting value-added methods of evaluating teachers or teacher education programs.
While those concerns are powerful and accurate, something more insidious is rarely examined: the unintended and ignored consequences of creating in education a culture of competitiveness among teachers about student test scores.
Whether value-added methods are used to determine teacher retention or merit pay, those policies are creating a system of labeling and ranking teachers, and thus, pitting teachers against each other for a finite number of jobs or pool of compensation.
The result of those policies is that each teacher must now not only prioritize her/his students’ test scores, but also seek ways in which her/his students can score higher than students in other teachers’ classes.
If Teacher A, then, finds ways in which to raise her/his students’ scores, she/he is incentivized to implement those practices while not sharing them with the wider community of teachers.
Yes, value-added methods (VAM) further reduce education to teaching to the test, but even more troubling is that VAM codifies a culture of competition that consumes the very community needed so that all students and all teachers excel.
Competition is often barbaric—as we witnessed at the end of the 2015 Superbowl when the Seahawks and Patriots were reduced in the closing seconds to the sort of fighting not accepted in the sport of football.
Schools, teaching, and learning are increasingly like those closing seconds—the circumstances are reduced, the stakes are high, and everyone becomes desperate to grab “his/hers,” without regard to others.
In education, then, the market forces us into the barbarism that formal education has been trying to overcome for decades.
Among media, political, and public claims driving calls for education reform, two beliefs are dominant: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.
As I have increased my contribution to public debates about education reform, I have witnessed that media, political, and public comments are often knee-jerk and simplistic either/or responses to complex research.
But I have also discovered that in my education courses, students challenge many research-based conclusions, although the students are more thoughtful—particularly when I share the evidence on the impact of education and teachers .
Consider the follow body of evidence below; and then, in the context of this evidence, I want to unpack what education and teacher impact actually entails.
Is teacher quality actually the single greatest factor in student achievement? Di Carlo details what research shows:
But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
Also consider Donald Hirsch’s research on the UK for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: “Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality [emphasis added]. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”
We see here two important points: (i) out-of-school factors dwarf measurable influences of teacher quality, and (ii) teacher quality is a subset of school quality. Thus, school and teacher quality is not even close to the most important measurable factor in student achievement.
Now, what is the evidence on social mobility in the U.S., notably in terms of how educational attainment influences the relationship between social class or race and that mobility?
Social mobility appears fairly sticky in the bottom and top quintiles:
One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility [emphasis added].
And thus, social mobility appears more strongly connected to the social class of a person’s family than to education (a function of combined school and teacher quality):
The consequences of the dynamic between social class and education are, as Matt O’Brien explains, as follows:
Now, consider the relationship between educational attainment and race. First, in Closing the Race Gap, O’Sullivan, Mugglestone, and Allison (2014) detail that blacks with some college earn about the same as whites with no high school diploma:
From this report as well, Susan Adams explains: “African-American college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”
The impact of education (school and teacher quality), then, when placed in the context of both social class and race refutes the opening claims: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.
When I offer these measurable facts to either the public or my students, often I hear: “So you are saying that education and teachers do not matter?”
Here is the hard part.
First, making claims that measurable education and teacher impact exists is problematic. Thus, I absolutely support that both education and teachers matter, but I also caution that this impact is not singular, direct, or easily quantified.
Part of that problem is that the impact of any person’s education or the influence of any teacher or teachers tends to occur over long periods of time, and we are hard pressed to tease out and measure specific teachers or practices since that impact is cumulative, interrelated, and multi-faceted (consider that a student can learn a valuable lesson from a flawed lesson or a weak teacher).
Our first conclusion, then, is that making claims about education being the single or sole factor in success or that the teacher is the single most important factor in achievement is misleading, overly simplistic.
But, there are fair and accurate claims we can make about the importance of education, leading to our second conclusion.
Our second conclusion is that within social class and race, educational attainment has significant influence, but that education alone appears less effective in overcoming large social inequities such as classism and racism.
From this, I think we have several important lessons:
Media, public, and political hyperbole about education and teacher impact does a disservice to public education, teachers, students, and the public. Overstating the impact of education and teachers assures that we will continue to fail our students and the promise of universal public education.
In our endless quest for education reform, we would be better served if we moved away from mostly measurable data points for making claims about and policies in education. Education is messy and complicated; quantified data are in fact simplistic and misleading.
Until we confront the corrosive influence of class and race in the U.S. and until we admit that education alone is not enough to overcome classism and racism, we are perpetuating social inequity.
Let’s be clear: Education and teachers matter. But, regretfully, they simply do not matter in the ways most people claim or believe, and certainly not in ways that are easy to identify.
The good news, however, is that there is much we can do to change this, if we have the resolve to confront the evidence, accept the ugly truths, and then to do something different.
 This post is in debt to my current, fall 2014 EDU 111 course at Furman University, a group of students fully committed to engaging with the topics, challenging claims, and seeking to understand the complexity of education. They are proof that teaching is an act of learning, if the teacher is there to listen as well as talk.
Although the foundational approach to education reform has remained the same (as has the structure of and instruction in public schools) for about a century—one grounded in revising or updating in-school-only elements such as standards/curriculum, technology, and testing—the past thirty years have seen education reform increase accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing (despite that approach never working) while rushing to experiment with charter schools and value-added methods of evaluating teachers (despite neither working as well).
And thus the “R” word that has remained ignored in education reform is not “reform,” but “race”—or more directly “racism.”
Throughout our current three decades of education reform, poverty has been a significant part of the discourse and equation—often framed as “not an excuse” or misrepresented as the “achievement gap.” Poverty, then, has been allowed in the conversation, included in the policies, and identified as a significant barrier to learning, but only as something we must overcome through racketing up the same old approaches to education reform noted above.
Just as one example, every year SAT data are released, the strongest correlations with scores remain the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and the academic attainment of those students’ parents. Yet, these historic and current patterns remain for the education reformers evidence not of systemic social inequity and not evidence of failed education reform or systemic school inequity, but proof that teachers and students simply are not trying hard enough.
Education reform not only ignores inequity bred from racism, classism, and sexism, but also actively perpetuates and even increases that inequity (most significantly reflected in high-stakes standardized testing).
The political, media, and public narratives in the U.S. focus only on the individual, and in the relationship among effort, talent, and opportunity, those narratives address only effort.
We must ask: Who benefits from cultural narratives that claim success comes from effort and failure from sloth? Who benefits when those cultural narratives begin by claiming everyone has the same opportunity in the U.S., by erasing the evidence of the power of privilege and disadvantage, most often grounded in race?
Sloganism and the Racist Politics of Education Reform
The ugly answer to those questions is that white and affluent privilege benefits from these cultural narratives that are in fact false and racist.
But we aren’t allowed to utter “lie” or “racism” in polite company in the U.S.—and such decorum, of course, may have sprung from those privileged few who are the ones most likely to have their sensibility bruised by both the directness and accuracy of those claims.
In a land where “racism” is not allowed in the conversation, racism does not disappear, but remains corrosive, powerfully so; as poet Adrienne Rich notes, “what is missing, desaparecido, [is] rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.” If we cannot say it, if we cannot think it, we certainly will not act to eradicate it.
And to demand individuals simply try harder in a context where effort is not the problem, and not the solution, is a harsher and more damning racism than in those days not too far in the U.S. past where racial slurs were public, frequent, and normal. “Work hard. Be nice” is the twenty-first century masked racial slur:
Currently, the grotesque reality we have created includes shunning direct and public racist language in the same ways we deflect credible acknowledgements of racism.
Just as book censorship is an effective and masked act of racism and sexism (authors or color and female writers are disproportionately impacted, silenced), just as mass incarceration is an effective and masked act of racism (white males outnumber black males 6-1 in society while black males outnumber white males 6-1 in prison), “no excuses” education reform focused on in-school policy and driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing is an effective and masked act of racism.
The primary sloganism used for effort is “grit,” and the anecdotal proof remains the Great White Male (Steve Jobs, for example)—with the exceptional outlier of color tossed in for good measure (the election of Barack Obama proves U.S. is a post-racial society, goes the claim).
Calling out racism is ignored, is shunned because the “grit” narrative and the Great White Male fall apart in the light of such calls—like a vampire reduced to dust by the risen sun.
Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America….
The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one.
And then it is Coates’s conclusion that exposes the essential racism in education reform—demanding exceptional effort by those marginalized exclusively for their race:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Gay has been brought to the place where she is confronting her ambition as a black Haitian because she is riding a wave of success for her novel, An Untamed States, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. “I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten,” Gay admits, adding a haunting event:
Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.
On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.
Like Coates, Gay recognizes her experience is not only hers:
Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.
Coates’s “superhuman” and Gay’s “outsized ambition” reverberate inside the walls built in the U.S. to keep such voices quiet because the truth is harsh, and ugly—as Gay explains:
I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.
While Gay as a black Haitian woman and I as a privileged white male have experienced much different lives, I can strongly identify with the allure she feels for the myth of the rugged individual:
I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.
Further, in the way that we should be confronting education reform, Gay unpacks President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, exposing the essential failure of the policy (an essential failure identified by Martin Luther King Jr. as addressing social inequity indirectly, instead of directly):
The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are.
Gay warns us about the dangers of exceptionality: “We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.” And then, after wrestling with the tensions created by her advantages shaded by burdens of her race and gender, Gay concludes:
I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied.
What I Have Learned from Sports
In my introductory education course and two first year seminars this fall, I have shared Gay’s wonderful and complicated essay. That education course has begun to confront the uncomfortable facts of privilege and race, and those first year students (since I teach at a selective university which results in a student population disproportionately white and affluent) echo Gay’s experiences with ambition and guilt. Gay’s kindergarten memory reflects something quite wrong about how all children are raised in the U.S. as well as revealing the scar of racism.
With those first-year students, we confronted the public and adult messages they have been sent about effort, talent, and opportunity. That discussion was sobering.
I shared with them my own journey—again one resting on significant privilege since I am white and male, but tinged slightly by my working-class background—to rejecting the “grit” propaganda—a journey traced through my efforts to be a successful athlete.
In high school, I worked doggedly to be a good basketball player; I made very little effort in school. I was usually the last player selected on the basketball team each year (primarily because the coaches knew my father) and then rode the bench, but I made mostly As and a few Bs in my classes.
At basketball practice, I often tried harder than anyone, something noted by the coaches even. But on game day, the better athletes (some who made almost no effort in practice) played. I had been raised in a “Word hard. Be nice” household, a vestige of 1950s idealism in the U.S. But the world of sport showed me the truth: Talent trumps effort when given the opportunity.
In other words, the “grit” honoring of effort first (and even exclusively) is a warped version of the real order of things: Opportunity, talent, and then effort.
The “grit” narrative, then, and the sloganism of “Work hard. Be nice”—regardless of good intentions—are the racial slurs of our time.
To end that racism, it first must be named, and then directly, we must attend to the opportunities denied so that talent and effort can matter. And the first opportunity every child, every person deserves is the basic human dignity that is destroyed when, as Gay stated, anyone feels that “[w]e must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.”
The consequences of these dynamics include an essentially passive teacher workforce and an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucracy driving how schools (K-12 and universities) are run, that dysfunction primarily grounded in that non-educators make most of the structural educational decisions and thus the education system is done to (and not by) the professionals themselves.
Most of those accountability years, I would classify as Phase 1, a period characterized by a political monopoly on both public discourse and policy addressing primarily public K-12 education.
We are now in Phase 2, a time in which (in many ways aided by the rise in social media—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—and the alternative press—AlterNet and Truthout) teachers, professors, and educational scholars have begun to create a resistance to the political, media, and public commitments to recycling false charges of educational failure in order to continue the same failed approaches to education reform again and again.
In Phase 1, educators were subjected to the role of the child; we were asked to be seen but not heard.
In Phase 2, adolescence kicked in, and we quite frankly began to experiment with our rebellious selves. In many instances, we have been pitching a fit—a completely warranted tantrum, I believe, but a tantrum nonetheless.
And now that there are some cracks in the education reform machine, now that we have committed ourselves to being that resistance, the voice and action of those who are the professionals, I am making a call for Phase 3, something like moving into our young adulthood as a resistance.
Having taught high school for 18 years and having raised a daughter into her mid-20s (so far), I am one who both loves and recognizes the power and danger of the passion driving adolescents. I am often jealous that adolescents can care so deeply and so loudly, and often with the ability to hold their pitch high endlessly.
The power of adolescent passion is that it breeds passion and it draws attention. The danger of adolescent passion is that it must result in something substantial or all that exponential passion and attention wither.
Now that we as the resistance have fostered passion beyond the choir and now that we have begun to garner the attention of a few politicians, a few journalists, and many parents as well as interested members of the public, I sense a need to make a shift in strategies that include the following:
While I remain committed to my many arguments defending tone, the resistance now must lead our claims with substance and take care not to create opportunities for our central messages to be overshadowed by either credible or unwarranted complaints about tone. I am reminded of the evolution of Michael Stipe’s lyrics for the alternative rock group R.E.M.; Stipe admitted during what can now be called the mid-period of the band that he had moved on from being always ironic and sarcastic about topics such as love (note the early “The One I Love”) in order to consider them seriously (note “At My Most Beautiful”). I am not saying we should no longer be angry (we should) or sarcastic and biting, but I believe we have come to a time in which our primary driving tone must be above the possibility of having our central mission undermined.
A related shift must be avoiding the trap of maintaining too much energy on putting out fires set by education reformers, notably in that we as the resistance are embroiled in refuting the person of the moment (from Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan to the current Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg). This is a very difficult bind for the resistance because education reform is rich not only in funding but also in celebrities of the moment. And my argument here is not that we do not refute edu-reformers without credibility, but that we maintain as we discredit a focus on the larger evidence and claims instead of suggesting that this person or that person is the problem. For example, I have offered that the Common Core debate is not about the specific standards, but about the failure of the accountability paradigm itself. With Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Brown, and others, our concern is that these people lack experience and expertise in our field, and thus, their claims and policies are the problems—not them as people. If we must write about Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on teacher tenure, we need to focus on what tenure is and how her characterization is misinformed—but not on that Goldberg said it (she isn’t alone, by the way, and by highlighting her, we suggest she has more credibility than dozens of other people saying the same misinformation).
As I have noted before (in the context of the John Oliver Rule), we must use the incredible platform that Diane Ravitch has built for teachers, professors, and scholars in order to build a movement of many faces, many voices, and many experts. The mainstream media have reduced the resistance to Ravitch in much the same way that the media have reduced climate change to Bill Nye. The resistance is and must be promoted as a rich and varied body of professionals, both unified and driven by the tensions of our field. Race, gender, sexuality, ideology—the rainbow of our resistance must be prominent and we cannot allow it to be reduced, oversimplified, or marginalized.
Because the education agendas and discourse by Democrats and Republicans are essentially indistinguishable, as I have argued before, educators have no political party.
Educators are similarly trapped, however, in the Common Core debate between standards advocates and standards critics, who are also indistinguishable for two prominent reasons: the failure to start the consideration of standards on either a rational or an evidence-based foundation.
Political leaders, the mainstream, media, and education reform advocates with the highest profiles represent the most distinct and influential evidence of this dynamic. Typically, the better considerations of standards broadly and Common Core narrowly are left to bloggers—for example, Rachel Levy’s The Common Condescension and Peter Greene’s Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars.
While Levy and Greene offer critiques with much greater credibility than the Common Core commentaries they refute, the wider public is likely to be left with having seen only the original, and flawed, claims. We edu-bloggers who have both experience and expertise in education are more or less left to preach to the choir.
But since the most recent trend concerning Common Core is for advocates and critics to discuss and analyze the Common Core debate itself—again, evidence that Common Core advocates have in fact won—I want to offer one more time the two foundational reasons that pursuing standards is a failed structure for education reform, two reasons that standards/Common Core advocates have been successful at removing from the table entirely.
Let’s start with basic logic problems for basing education reform on standards (especially the perpetual pursuit of new and better standards).
In order for new standards to be a major or significant solution to education problems, we would need to establish that current standards (or a lack of standards) are the source of those problems. This may surprise some, but I have never seen a single careful examination of whether or not standards are the problem (see below for the evidence on what we do know about standards as a part of the reform agenda); thus, standards are unlikely to be the solution.
A practical logic problem also exists for those advocating or criticizing standards: If I am teaching, my job is to identify where any student is in her/his learning and then to take that student farther, both in terms of direct teaching and by motivating that student to learn. That fact of real-world teaching renders detailed standards irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what a standard deems any student should know and when since the reality of that student supersedes those mandates.
Calculating something such as 8th-grade reading level (a spurious venture at best) and then crafting standards to hold all teachers of 8th-graders and all 8th-graders to that goal remain mostly theory, achievable in the abstract maybe, but, again, prove pointless in the real world where any classroom of 8th-graders has reading experiences and abilities all along a wide spectrum that each teacher must work with and from.
My 8th-grader reading above grade level and my 8th-grader reading below grade level both deserve my teaching them, and not that I try to accomplish the state-mandated standards. (And to suggest that I need someone to mandate my standards lest I know not what to teach is a truly offensive claim for a professional.)
A rational and ethical approach to teaching begins with where students are, not with standard calls for where every student should be.
However, if the rational approaches to considering standards-based reform aren’t enough (and they should be enough to show that the debate itself is fruitless, that we should be pursuing something else), let’s now turn to what we know about standards-based reform.
Modern education in U.S. has existed from and through a series of broad eras: From the 1890s and into mid-twentieth century (the foundational years of establishing standards as well as a factory, and thus standard, approach to public schooling), the volatile 1950s and 1960s with Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation establishing racial equity, and then the current accountability era begun in the 1980s, reinforced in 2001 with NCLB and later expanded under President Obama (again, the Bush and Obama agendas are indistinguishable from each other).
To be blunt, in fact, U.S. public education has never been absent arguments about what should be taught (both standards and curriculum) and how that should be taught, but the past thirty years have provided a solid research base on how accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing impacts education reform.
And that brings us to the second problem with both advocates and critics of Common Core: They never address what we know about standards-based education reform.
A significant research base along a wide range of political ideologies has been essentially ignored, primarily because Common Core advocates have successfully established a debate about Common Core itself and thus never allowed the necessary initial debate to occur: Are standards the problem, and thus, are better standards the solution?
Educators and those who value universal public education are left with two difficult positions. One is that we have no political party, and the other is that we find ourselves outside the Common Core debate—demanding in both instances that we try something else, notably that we start by first identifying the causes of our problems so that our solutions have a chance of succeeding.
We re left with being rational, with calling upon evidence in the wider public debates, and to be honest, those are significant uphill battles in the U.S. where the irrational and unmerited thrive.
Recently, many within and among the AFT and NEA communities have been applauding that summer conventions have devoted time to debating the Common Core, some going as far as hailing that debate as proof of democracy in action.
The key problem with those claims is that the Common Core debate has been decided for educators, and not by educators. And thus, debating the Common Core is proof that educators have lost.
AFT, NEA, and the Democratic party (all long associated with supporting public education) are failing that commitment because each is focused primarily on preserving the organization and not seeking the principles that these organizations were intended to honor (see Susan Ohanian).
The entire Common Core charade, in fact, has revealed the worst aspect of partisanship—the need to support Team A over Team B in the pursuit of winning, ethics and principles be damned. Ultimately, that educators are applauding the debate about Common Core is further evidence that who controls the table wins. And thus, I want to repost the following:
Who Controls the Table Wins
NOTE: The current education reform agenda focusing primarily on Common Core remains to be a failure of leadership. Public school teachers, public schools, and public school students are little more than collateral damage in the battle to see who can out-standard and out-test and out-rigor whom. Professional organizations, unions, and political leadership are fighting for a place at the table—not securing the sort of future public schools should offer all children in the U.S.
In her discussion of science fiction (SF), Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among SF, speculative fiction, fantasy, and utopian/dystopian fiction, and throughout, she highlights the power of these overlapping genres to explore the “What if?” by blending dramatizations of human history with human possibility. These genres have the power as well to force us to re-see now in the imagined context of other times and places. 
So in the spirit of “What if?” let’s consider a brief thought experiment.
Let’s imagine an other world where the Discovery Institute—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the current state of evolutionary understanding in the sciences—decides to evaluate how evolution is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S., with the stated goal of reforming the content and teaching of evolution by labeling and ranking the current departments of biology based on standards for teaching the origin and evolution of humans designed by the Discovery Institute.
Let’s also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the Discovery Institute has reached an agreement with a major magazine—let’s say U.S. & News World Report—to publish these reports because the U.S. public holds views rejecting evolution and embracing Creationism that appear to match more closely the Discovery Institute than the current knowledge-base of evolutionary biologists.
Now, let’s imagine what the response of those biologists and their departments would be? Would they clamor to fill the seats at this table set by the Discovery Institute and the political leadership among the states and in the federal government? My speculation is to say no they wouldn’t because biologists trust and work at the table they set for their field, and as a central aspect of their professionalism, they would sit firmly at their table, that is in fact not a fixed or dogmatic setting, but a place where those with expertise and experience in the field create and wrestle with the agenda.
Having the Common Core Debate Is Conceding the Table
As with many works of SF, my thought experiment above is a thin mask for exactly what has occurred in education and education reform over the past three decades and intensified in the last decade.
From the accountability movement begun in the 1980s to the implementation of No Child Left Behind to the call for Common Core State Standards (CC) and to the demonizing of teachers along with the rise of calls for teacher education reform (such as the National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]), the pattern in the thought experiment above has been identical to what education has experienced except for one key element: Educators, administrators, union leaders, and professional organizations have knocked each other down and tripped over their own feet to grab the seats at the table being established and set by think-tanks, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and politicians.
And here is the essential problem and distinction between K-12 education and higher education. K-12 education is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and blinded by a market ideology (customer service) that de-professionalizes teachers; college education has been historically more apt to embrace academic freedom, professor expertise and autonomy, and field integrity (although these qualities are certainly under assault and eroding).
Calls to join the agendas that are de-professionalizing and marginalizing teachers are concessions to those without expertise and experience establishing the table, and in effect, they’re winning before the discussion ever starts. Hollow rings the refrains that cry out for joining the table because joining the table immediately silences any credible call for questioning the efficacy of the table.
Joining the CC table concedes that education somehow fails due to a lack of standards, that teachers somehow in 2014 need someone else to tell them what to teach.
Joining the CC table to make sure they are implemented “properly” admits teachers are not professionals, not experts as every biologist in U.S. colleges and universities demands for herself or himself.
Joining the teacher education reform movement, participating in NCTQ’s assault on teacher education masked as reform, concedes that a think-tank knows something the entire field of teacher education has yet to determine.
Joining the test-prep mantra and the “no excuses” tables acknowledges and confirms a deficit view of children and transmissional view of knowledge/learning/teaching that dehumanize children and teachers while working against democracy, human agency, and human autonomy.
In my critical examination of school choice, I did not speculate about some other world, but compared the education reform movement to the medical profession. In the late twentieth century doctors fell victim to the market, allowing patients to exert their “customer” muscle when those patients demanded antibiotics. Doctors who acquiesced maintained and gained patients-as-customers; doctors who followed their professional autonomy and did not prescribe antibiotics unless they were warranted lost patients.
Inexpert customers determine standards and evaluate professionals in the market paradigm that promotes a simplistic view of choice proclaiming the customer is always right.
When doctors let patients set the table, what was the result? MRSA and a whole new medical dilemma, one that the medical profession had to reclaim by asserting their expertise and experience. 
Begging to join the tables built by the self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience is abdicating any potential power among teachers unions, teacher professional organizations, and educators.
Instead, teachers—as well as any unions or professional organizations formed in their names—must establish and participate fully in our own tables because who controls the table wins.
The education reform movement, then, is not about educators claiming our place at self-proclaimed reformers’ tables, but about having the professional integrity and autonomy to decide what tables matter based on our expertise.
 DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. Retrieved from http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/Educ/CME/BBB.pdf ; Ong, S. et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.
While watching The Wolverine (2013) starring Hugh Jackman, I noticed that along with Wolverine’s adamantium claws, Jackman’s nipples were featured prominently, leading me to search for the film’s promotional poster. And my suspicions were confirmed:
This contradiction highlights Hollywood’s perverse double-standard that includes tabooing female nudity while also disproportionately objectifying women in gratuitous sex and nudity in films, and then speaks to the remaining systemic and institutional misogyny throughout the U.S.
Along with Hollywood and the complicit media, the central elements of education reform in the U.S. share one important thread among the repeated blaming of “bad” teachers, “bad” teachers unions, and the urgent need to fire those teachers by dismantling those unions.
That thread? Teaching remains a field dominated by women, and one we can assume the public identifies with women. As Nancy Flanagan explains:
But–as Solnit deftly points out–a great deal of bias goes unrecognized and unacknowledged in ordinary life in a male-dominated culture. Folks in education–male and female–just don’t see it, or feel it. Or the huge imbalance in power and influence is obscured by a handful of women who serve as highly visible role models.
Do the math, however–about 84% of K-12 teachers in the United States are female, a rapidly increasing disproportion. Combined with the fact that the modal level of teacher experience is currently one year, it’s easy to see how major shifts in curriculum, instruction, assessment and hiring have been accomplished. Nobody’s pushing back.
I am struck that of all the professions in the U.S., why is there no urgent call for no “bad” doctors, no “bad” lawyers, no “bad” CEOs, or no “bad” politicians? And I must note that each of these remains male-dominated—both in numbers and in social perception.
As well, teaching as the work of women has been traditionally monitored by a demand that teachers remain politically quiet, passive, and now in 2014, education reform is the new misogyny.
The surface elements of education reform that currently target teacher quality and teachers unions are as thin veils as Green’s nightgown, but socially, the U.S. appears offended only by the exposed breast on a film poster.
But once we remove that veil, it seems irrefutable that education reform is driven by a 21st-century misogyny that must be confronted. I offer, then, this reader:
In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (p. 32)
In all countries, the proportion of workers with temporary status is growing relative to those with permanent jobs. Increased insecurity and “flexibility” lead to the loss of modest advantages…which might compensate for low wages, such as long-lasting employment, health insurance and pension right. (p. 37)
While teaching as a profession has remained relatively low-pay, teachers have often been pacified by the mirage of “fringe benefits,” but now it seems, that as the circumstances of all workers are reduced (the Walmartification of the U.S. workforce as part-time with no benefits), the next phase of that reduction is the lowest rungs of the professional ladder—those professions held mainly by women.
As Bourdieu explains by way of Max Weber, “dominant groups [read: white males in the U.S.] always need…a theoretical justification of the fact that they are privileged. Competence is nowadays at the heart of that” justification, which for teachers is the rise of proving teacher quality through measurement—something that those in power do not need to do since they maintain the public’s gaze on the demand for others to prove their worth (p. 43).
Systemic and institutional racism, classism, and misogyny are protected by repeating pacifying and distracting narratives, as confronted by Bourdieu:
I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies. (p. 7)
Racial minorities, women, and children remain disproportionately disadvantaged in the U.S., the wealthiest and most power nation in human history. But that wealth and advantage also remain disproportionately hoarded by a white and male leadership that demands everyone proves her/his worth.
Education reform is the new misogyny as well as the new racism and classism.
The commonality we are failing to recognize and mobilize is that most of us are and always will be workers. To protect and honor the field of teaching is to protect and honor all workers—just as to protect and honor the field of teaching is to call for an end to misogyny.
As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).
Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!
Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:
And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here,here and here — including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)
Let’s do some truly basic math.
First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:
“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”
So the first formula is:
Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)
As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.
This suggests a new formula:
Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)
Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).
First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story  because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).
And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.
So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.
And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated by those who know the field:
And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.
Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.
If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.
First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.
I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.
I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.
And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).
So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.
This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.
It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.
I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).
I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.
The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).
If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.
So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.
I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).
Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) , and the list goes on.
I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.
Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.
Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.
But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).
The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.
And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.
And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”
As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:
It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.
And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”
Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.
Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time  or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.
Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.
As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.