Tag Archives: public schools

Once Again, NAEP? Nope: “states and schools have lied about the rigor of their courses”

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 [1] (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:

  • NAEP data are released and pronouncements made, but no one really knows the cause of the data concerns. Why scores appear stagnant and why racial/socioeconomic gaps persist are often complex (although a huge and evidence-based source of both is likely inequity and poverty). The initial reactions to NAEP this time in EdWeek and HuffPo are overwhelmingly speculation by people with political agendas. If we are genuinely interested in people who are likely telling lies, it appears we may want to look at the people cited in these articles.
  • “Achievement gap” is a misnomer for “opportunity gaps,” and using standardized tests to measure and examine that gap is inherently flawed since standardized testing remains biased by race, class, and gender; and thus, the tests themselves not only measure but create the gaps. Furthermore, for any gap to close, identified populations of students would need to be treated differently, but the current policy is a common core of what students experience in schools. And another dirty little secret is that the current era of accountability has damned high-poverty and minority students to test-prep course work that in fact asks less of them (thus, it is not “states and schools” that are telling lies, but politicians who shape accountability policy who are in fact telling lies).
  • Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, we have found no correlation between how U.S. students do on test comparisons (among states or internationally) and claimed goals such as international competitiveness or the robustness of the U.S economy. None. And while we are at it, over the last three decades of accountability, we have found no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and measurable student outcomes. None. Again, it is a political lie to continue to cry “crisis” over test scores. A lie.

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:

  1. Lie: U.S. schools, teachers, and students are failing because of low standards and expectations.
  2. Lie: New standards and new tests will save public schools.
  3. Lie: State X is worse than State Y because NAEP (or SAT) scores say so; the U.S. is falling behind Country X because PISA scores say so.
  4. Lie: Poverty is not destiny.
  5. Lie: Arne Duncan (or Bill Gates or Michelle Rhee) knows what he is talking about.
  6. Lie: Education reform is the Civil Rights issue of our time.
  7. Lie: U.S. education is struggling because of “bad” teachers who are too hard to fire.
  8. Lie: Charter school X is a “miracle” school.

Truth: The USDOE is the embodiment of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

For Further Reading

I love the smell of NAEPalm in the morning

[1] See also Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out.



Standards Won’t Change Inequity: A Reader

The new Common Core and related tests are likely to continue a three-decade pattern of traditional schooling either integrating the new standards and tests into the existing structure of schools or using the new standards and tests to justify existing practices. And thus, I offer a reader below, highlighting a demonstrable set of interrelated problems with U.S. public schools and higher education—inequitable discipline, retention, and other school-based dynamics disproportionately impacting African American males negatively and college graduation inequity for AA male athletes:

“We often talk about solving this problem as if it’s an easy problem to solve,” said James Forman Jr., a clinical professor at Yale Law School. “Actually creating a positive school climate, particularly in schools that are in communities that are themselves not calm and orderly, is hard work.”

Mr. Forman added that because school accountability systems focus on student test scores and other academic measures, rather than on reducing suspensions, schools might not have much incentive to keep troubled students in class [emphasis added]. “Sometimes getting rid of these kids can help you do better on the metrics that you are evaluated on,” he said. “If a kid is causing trouble, that’s probably not a kid who is testing well, and it may be a kid who is making it hard for teachers to teach other kids.”

K-12 and higher education are failing African American males; high-stakes accountability based on standards and testing is unlikely to change that fact—but is likely to increase it.

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children


Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children

Edited by P. L. Thomas, Paul R. Carr, Julie Gorlewski, and Brad Porfilio

Peter Lang USA

Rethinking Childhood Series, Gaile Cannella, series editor

Call and Submission Requirements

Submit a proposal of about 300 words by February 28, 2014, to paul.thomas@furman.edu.

Chapter initial drafts due July 15, 2014, should be in APA citation/style format (see citation proofing guidelines below) and 5,500-6,500 words. Authors are urged to submit clean and carefully edited drafts to enhance the editing process. Please take great care with block quotes (do not set off with returns and tabs) and hanging indents in the references list (do not create hanging indents with return/tab, but use the ruler or Menu>Format>Paragraph>Special>Hanging Indent). (Please read carefully below the background underpinning informing this volume.) Also, it is important to have complete bibliographic information with up-to-date references. (See the end of this document for more information on APA).

Topics, problems, and practices addressing the following will be included:

  • How are “no excuses” ideologies dominant in child rearing and schooling in the U.S. and elsewhere? How are these practices harmful to children?
  • Why are the Commons essential to a thriving democracy, and how does a cultural attitude toward children impact that culture’s commitment to the Commons (notably public schools)?
  • What constitutes pedagogies of kindness and respect?
  • What practices in child rearing and schooling reflect pedagogies of kindness and respect?
  • How are attitudes and practices related to children connected to democratic values?
  • How are current educational structures reflecting and perpetuating stratified opportunities for children, and what education reform alternatives address those structures?
  • How does kindness play into the conceptualization of educational curricula, pedagogy, policy and evaluation?

Submission of Chapter Proposals

To be included in the 300 words are:

  1. Name(s) and affiliation(s) of author(s)
  2. Proposed title
  3. A detailed abstract on the focus of the proposed chapter, including conceptual, theoretical and methodological frameworks as well as the central research question.
  4. A list of 8 keywords.
  5. Also attach the CV(s) for the proposed author(s).

Points of Emphasis

Because we are living in times of historical amnesia, the chapters themselves should be critical, illustrate multiplicity and nuance, and demonstrate an awareness of historical and critical constructions of childhood (and the past work done related to these areas).  The following are examples of expectations for the work:

  1. The fields of education, and especially early childhood education, have included some histories and perspectives that view/treat those who are younger with kindness and respect.  Examples include the works of Nel Noddings (1992), The Challenge to Care in Schools, and Lisa Goldstein (1998), Teaching with Love (in Peter Lang’s Rethinking Series) as well as various scholarly and educational models practiced or put forward by multiple educators and scholars.  Chapters in the work should demonstrate an informed awareness of this history and the ways that both old and new ideas can counter current conditions that are harmful to both those who are younger and older.
  2. The chapters should avoid reconstitution of the romantic, innocent child to be saved by more advanced adults; this has been addressed by many.  The issue is the context in which we are all being placed (not that we should protect the “innocent” child) that is harmful to those who are younger, as well as everyone else.
  3. The notion of two interpretations of childhood: (a) those who are poor who are also often labeled as not knowing how to raise their children so needing help, and (b) those who are privileged and know how to raise their children, has been discussed and problematized over the past 30 years.  Rather than treating this circumstance as a new revelation, the issue is “why has this circumstance continued and even worsened?”  The gap between the rich and poor has certainly increased (why?); testing and standards based education has been critiqued as problematic, but the practices are more accepted than ever (why?); why has past work been ignored and what can be done to change our current circumstances?


  • Call, proposals due: February 28, 2014
  • Accepted chapters: March 15, 2014
  • Chapters due: July 15, 2014
  • Revised/final chapters due: September 30, 2014
  • Manuscript delivered: October 15, 2014


Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

In Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven,” Rachel sits in class on her eleventh birthday, a day in which she is confronted by her teacher about a found red sweater that the teacher is certain belongs to Rachel:

“Of course it’s yours,” Mrs. Price says. “I remember you wearing it once.” Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not. (Cisneros, 2004, p. 42)

While these are fictional representations, children live in a state of powerlessness, silenced by the hierarchy of authority. The sweater in Cisneros’s story is, in fact, not Rachel’s, but as the narration reveals, facts are secondary to hierarchy.

In the U.S. and throughout the world, children tend to experience not only silencing but also a level of harshness not found in other cultures.

The twenty-first century remains a harsh place for children in their lives and their schools, even in the U.S. where childhood poverty is over 20% and the new majority of public schools involve children in poverty (A new majority, 2013).

But more than the conditions of children’s lives and schools in 2013 is worth addressing. As Barbara Kingsolver (1995) details in “Somebody’s Baby”:

What I discovered in Spain was a culture that held children to be meringues and éclairs. My own culture, it seemed to me in retrospect, tended to regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not our own we don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it. (p. 100)

A sort of cultural antagonism and authoritarian control of children pervades the U.S., and during the current thirty-year cycle of accountability, children tend to face this formula[i]:

If children in the U.S. can survive the gauntlet that is the national formula for children, as young adults they can look forward to crushing debt to attend college so that they can enter a nearly non-existent workforce.

But there is a caveat to this formula: The U.S. formula for children above is for “other people’s children,” that new majority in U.S. public schools and those children living in homes of the working poor, the working class, and the dwindling middle class.

Children of the privileged are exempt.

This volume will collect a wide variety of accessible chapters from scholars and practitioners to explore pedagogies of kindness, an alternative to the “no excuses” ideology now dominating how children are raised and educated in the U.S. The genesis of this volume cane be linked to two poems by P.L. Thomas: “the archeology of white people” and “the kindness school (beyond the archeology of white people, pt. 2),” the second of which reads in full:

it simply happened one day
when the teachers decided
enough was enough

all the boys with OCD
spent the day playing drums
or riding their bicycles

and the introverts sat quietly
smiling periodically in the corners
while the extroverts laughed and laughed

and soon the pleasures became many
as varied as the children themselves
until one day a child stood to proclaim

after reading Hamlet all on her own
“I say, we will have no more tests”
to which there was thunderous cheering

yes it seemed simple and obvious enough
the founding of the kindness school
with open doors and children singing


Cisneros, S. (2004). Vintage Cisneros. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Kingsolver, B. (1995). High tide in Tucson: Essays from now and never. New York, NY: Perennial.

A new majority: Low income students in the South and nation. (2013, October). Atlanta, GA: Southern Education Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/0bc70ce1-d375-4ff6-8340-f9b3452ee088/A-New-Majority-Low-Income-Students-in-the-South-an.aspx

Vonnegut, K. (1965). God bless you, Mr. Rosewater or pearls before swine. New York, NY: Delta.

See also:





Citation Proofreading Guidelines

APA — Please copyedit submissions carefully to be sure you have cited following the APA style sheet; below are key points of emphasis that still need addressing in many chapters (also see for guidance https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/):

Copyedit carefully references, noting APA format for titles of books and article (CAP first letter of title, first letter of subtitle and proper nouns ONLY [for example The handmaid’s tale]; journal titles use standard CAP conventions [for example: English Journal]). Essay and chapter titles do NOT require QMs, but book and journal titles remain in ITAL. Also be careful to ensure that each reference conforms to the type of work you are citing; the OWL link has a wide range of samples on the left menus, and it is crucial that you match the type of work being cited to the format. The initial information in each reference bibliography MUST match your in-text citations. For example:

in-text example

James Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon.


Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

In-text guidelines include the following key elements:

First paraphrased reference to a source in EACH new paragraph must include either Author (year) or (Author, year). PLEASE keep Author (year) or (Author, year) in conjunction; do NOT place the year isolated from the author name. All subsequent uses in that paragraph require only either Author or (Author). Please note that parenthetical cites in the flow of your sentences require that the period come AFTER the ( ). ; for block quotes, the period comes BEFORE .( )


America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as any race of people. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, as Alexander details, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

In-text citing of print sources, required page numbers:

First quoted reference to a print source in EACH new paragraph must include either Author (year, p. #) or (Author, year, p. #). All subsequent uses require only either Author (p. #) or (Author, p. #). Note that a comma must separate Author, year, p. # and that a SPACE must be placed after the p. preceding the page number. For a quote from a single page use “p.” and for a quote spanning multiple pages, use “pp.” Please note that parenthetical cites in the flow of your sentences require that the period come AFTER the ( ). ; for block quotes, the period comes BEFORE .( )


In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Citing literary sources with APA:

APA is somewhat cumbersome for citing extended literary analysis, but you must first create an accurate bibliography of the cited works (such as novels) you will cite, and then maintain the above formatting principles when citing from and offering an extended analysis of that work. APA uses Author (year) or (Author, year) and not abbreviations of titles. If you are citing multiple works from an author published in the same year, you must alphabetize them in your bibliography by the titles, and then add sequential alphabet denotes that then MUST be used in the in-text citations.


Typical of contemporary education reform, CCSS began as a political process driven by business interests—not as an educational process designed by classroom teachers or educational researchers (Ohanian, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2011a, 2011b, n.d). In the 1980s during the first wave of accountability, state governors became the primary voice for educational reform. Those governors often used their educational bully pulpit to pursue economic and business goals—improving the workforce or attracting new companies.

[note that proper hanging indent does not show in blog format]

Ohanian, S. (2012a, November 19). Common Core reality check: Here’s how Common Core assessments plan to certify workers for the global economy (with pix)…Let’s make sure the children read ALL of Ovid while we’re at it! Substance News. Retrieved from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3778

Ohanian, S. (2012b, October 28). Snookered by Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Education. The Daily Censored. Retrieved from http://www.dailycensored.com/snookered-by-bill-gates-and-the-u-s-department-of-education/

Ohanian, S. (2012c, February 4). NCTE allegiance to the Common Core is burying us. SusanOhanian.org. Retrieved from http://susanohanian.org/outrage_fetch.php?id=1183

Ohanian, S. (2011a, December 7). We’re being steamrolled into one-size-fits-all. Learning Matters. Retrieved from http://learningmatters.tv/blog/web-series/discuss-are-common-core-standards-good-or-bad-for-education/8280/

Ohanian, S. (2011b, October 19). The crocodile in the Common Core Standards. Substance News. Retrieved from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=2716

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

Poverty is a trap children are born into:

brown wire crab cage
Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

No child has ever chosen to be poor. Children have never caused the poverty that defines their lives, and their education.

Yet, the adults with political, corporate, and educational wealth and power—who demand “no excuses” from schools and teachers serving the new majority of impoverished children in public schools and “grit” from children living in poverty and attending increasingly segregated schools that offer primarily test-prep—embrace a very odd stance themselves: Their “no excuses” and “grit” mottos stand on an excuse that there is nothing they can do about out-of-school factors such as poverty.

Living in poverty is a bear trap (and it is), and education is a race, a 100-meter dash.

“No excuses” advocates calling for grit, then, are facing this fact:

Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks.

And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, “no excuses” reformers shout to the children in poverty: “Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!”

These “no excuses” advocates turn to the public and shrug, “There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry.”

What is also revealed in this staggered 100-meter race is that all the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: “Slack” is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources.

In the race to the top that public education has become, affluent children starting at the 90-meter line can jog, walk, lie down, and even quit before the finish line. They have the slack necessary to fail, to quit, and to try again—the sort of slack all children deserve.

Children in relative affluence do not have to wrestle with hunger, worry about where they’ll sleep, feel shame for needing medical treatment when they know their family has no insurance and a tight budget, or watch their families live every moment of their lives in the grip of poverty’s trap.

As Mullainathan and Shafir explain: “Scarcity captures the mind.” And thus, children in poverty do not have such slack, and as a result, their cognitive and emotional resources are drained, preoccupied.

The ugly little secret behind calls for “no excuses” and “grit” is that achievement is the result of slack, not grit.

Children living and learning in abundance are not inherently smarter and they do not work harder than children living and learning in poverty. Again, abundance and slack actually allow children to work slower, to make more mistakes, to quit, and to start again (and again).

Quite possibly, an even uglier secret behind the “no excuses” claim that there is nothing the rich and powerful can do about poverty is that this excuse is also a lie.

David Berliner (2013) carefully details, “To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty” (p. 208).

More children are being born into the trap of poverty in the U.S., and as a result, public schools are now serving impoverished students as the typical student.

The “no excuses” and “grit” mantras driving the accountability era have been exposed as ineffective, but have yet to be acknowledged as dehumanizing.

Instead of allowing some children to remain in lives they didn’t choose or create and then condemning them also to schools unlike the schools affluent children enjoy, our first obligation as free people must be to remove the trap of poverty from every leg of every child.


David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314


Why Do People Stay Poor? Clare Balboni, Oriana Bandiera, Robin Burgess, Maitreesh Ghatak, and Anton Heil


Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

A comment posted on my blog about union support for Common Core (CC)—which parallels my blog post about Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration’s support for CC—represents a typical response coming from standards advocates in the CC debate: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters.”

Alfie Kohn in January 2010 argued against national standards in Education Week; I then offered a direct rejection of CC in the same publication in August of 2010. A few others took early stances against CC, such as Susan Ohanian (whose work is impressive and certainly well before most people raised any concerns) and Stephen Krashen.

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris have taken stances opposing CC more recently, and they represent thoughtful and patient considerations of the exact issue raised by the comment quoted above. At first, Ravitch and Burris appeared willing to consider that CC could prove to be an effective reform mechanism. But both of their explanations for deciding to oppose CC are windows into my initial and continuing stance against the expensive and unnecessary venture into what for most states will be the third or fourth set of standards and high-stakes tests in about thirty years.

I have been a teacher for those thirty years, in fact—the first 18 years spent as a public school teacher in the rural South and the last 13 years as a teacher educator in the same region.

My work as a classroom teacher in the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by quarterly multiple-choice benchmark tests of reading and quarterly writing samples from my students that asked them to write one of four types of writing: description, narration, persuasion, or exposition (types that do not exist as stand-alone forms in the real world, by the way, but exist only in a world where standards and testing rule).

During those years also, state standards changed three times, and concurrent with those changes, we adopted new textbooks and sat through hours and hours of in-service, handed over more and more class time to test-prep, and implemented SAT courses during the school day (ones for which students received credit toward graduation) that required huge investments in hardware and software, which mostly never worked (my home state of SC has a history of so-called low SAT scores so our 1990s approach to addressing that was to encourage more students to take the SAT).

Eventually, the entire state of SC became invested in MAP testing while students at the high school where I taught were assigned two ELA and two math courses as sophomores if they had 8th-grade test data suggesting they would struggle with the state high-stakes tests. Our administration assigned as many as half our sophomores in double ELA and math courses, in fact.

One legacy of this test-mania was that many sophomores in our school wrote only 3-5-3 essays (3-sentence introduction, 5-sentence body paragraph, 3-sentence conclusion) because that was how they were trained to answer on the state writing test—a strategy that did increase how many passed but also ignored good writing pedagogy and mis-educated those students severely.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my high school became a master of doing the wrong thing the right way as we were regularly the top-scoring school in the state on the state’s high-stakes tests.

Once at higher education, I watched my teacher candidates and teachers in the surrounding public schools suffer under yet more revisions to the standards and two different versions of high-stakes tests (since the mid-1980s, SC has implemented BSAP and then PACT and then PASS); now the entire state is implementing CC and poised for the CC-based and once again new set of high-stakes test.

All of this is to say: If you have ever taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that the comment quoted at the beginning is patently false. In fact, if you have taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that CC cannot be separated from highs-stakes testing.

In 2013, with almost all states in the U.S. committed to CC, with the U.S. Department of Education supporting CC, with teachers’ unions supporting CC, with textbook and testing companies supporting CC, and with professional teacher organizations supporting CC, there is a deafening silence about a few facts that must be confronted if anyone or any organization wishes to make this claim: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters”:

  • Name a state in the U.S. that implemented state standards since 1980 without also implementing high-stakes tests.
  • Name a state in the U.S. that has adopted CC and has not adopted some form of high-stakes testing related to CC.
  • Name a state that does not have high-stakes accountability mechanisms in place—as a legacy of state legislation and/or as a result of complying with federal mandates within policy such as Race to the Top or opting out of NCLB.
  • Name a school (especially a high-poverty school) where “what is tested is what is taught” does not drive most of what occurs in that school.
  • Name a state that is not spending tax payer money (totaling in the 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars nationally) on CC resources and technology, CC-aligned text books, CC testing, and CC teacher in-service.
  • Name a strong CC advocate who isn’t making money and/or gaining political advantage by endorsing CC.

My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. A foundational part of my doctoral study and dissertation research, then, explored the century-old debate about what content matters, what should be taught in public schools. Any standards movement is a direct descendent of the larger curriculum debate.

While John Dewey and even Joseph Schwab provide engaging and powerful places upon which Eliot Eisner and others have the luxury of thinking deeply about esoteric things (issues that I too find fascinating), in the real world of day-to-day K-12 teaching, it is pure delusion and myopic idealism to make claims that CC and high-stakes testing debates are “two different matters.”

Around 2000 when my daughter was 11 and attending a public middle school, she came out to the car one day leaning against the weight of her giant backpack, slid into my car, and then said: “All they care about is the PACT test [SC’s high-stakes test at the time]; they don’t care if we learn anything.” [1] She never once as a student mentioned the standards. And in many ways as a child of the accountability era, I think she learned to hate school. She loved her friends and loved many of her teachers, but she hated what school had become throughout the 1990s—which pales to what school has become in the twenty-first century.

Thus, address the bullet points above if you don’t believe me, or better yet, ask a classroom teacher—not a union leader, not a politician, not a representative of Pearson, not a consultant.

[1] See “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think,” English Journal (2001, September).

Rising Weight of Poverty on Public Schools

[This ran without hyperlinks at The Greenville News (November 1, 2013) and The Charleston Post & Courier (November 4, 2013)]

According to 1860 census data, South Carolina had the highest percentage (57.2%) of its population as slaves in the U.S. Beaufort County (82.8%) and Georgetown County (85.7%) represented the significant impact of slave populations along the coast.

The legacy of the scar of slavery in SC remains in the form of I-95 and what is now recognized as the “Corridor of Shame”—a collection of public schools bordering that interstate highway and serving in some of the highest poverty areas of SC.

Another legacy of the South is school segregation. A 2012 report from The Civil Rights project detailed the rise of re-segregated schools across the South:

Black and Latino students in the South attend schools defined by double isolation by both race and poverty. The South reports high overall shares of students living in poverty, but students of different racial backgrounds are not exposed equally to existing poverty. The typical black and Latino student in the region goes to a school with far higher concentrations of low-income students than the typical white or Asian student.

The South, the report explained, has become a majority-minority region of the U.S.; however, “Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (90-100% minority students).”

In SC, for example, only 38.5% of white students attend majority-minority, high-poverty schools—a slight decrease when compared to 1970 (41.2%), 1980 (42.7%), and 1991 (41.8%). For African American students, however, majority-minority, high-poverty schools are the norm.

An October 2013 study from the Southern Education Foundation has revealed that the “new majority” of students in U.S. public schools are high-poverty. For SC, that means that 54.7% of public school students are living in poverty. This ranking places SC in the bottom quartile of the U.S.—approximately where many of the indicators used to compare the state’s education system rank the state.

The overwhelming evidence now shows that SC is experiencing the same social dynamics that characterize the U.S.—an increase in child and family poverty, a widen gap between the affluent and the working poor and poor, and a slow recognition that public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate those inequities instead of helping children overcome them.

For SC, these messages about re-segregating schools, increasing populations of impoverished students, and rising numbers of English Language learners should signal an end to current public discourse and policy related to education reform.

Many of the policies currently endorsed and poised to be implemented in SC are either not designed to address the poverty problem or are certain to increase the problems students bring to our schools.

For example, charter schools in SC and across the U.S. are not producing student achievement distinguishable from public schools, but charter schools are strongly associated with segregating students by race and class.

As well, redesigning teacher evaluation and pay based on student test scores is guaranteed to discourage SC’s best and brightest teachers from teaching in our high-poverty schools, increasing the historical failure to provide our high-poverty and ELL students with certified and experienced teachers. This same failure is repeated by increasing our commitments to Teach for America, which places uncertified and inexperienced teachers with high-poverty students.

One of most damaging policies being endorsed in SC is the call to retain third graders based on test scores. Retention research for the past forty years shows that retention does not improve achievement but does increase dropping out of school. A test-based retention policy, then, will disproportionately and negatively impact high-poverty and ELL students in our state.

A final, but indirect failure of current education reform is the adoption of Common Core and the related high-stakes tests.

SC’s education problems have nothing to do with our curriculum or our testing. Investing tax payers’ dollars and educators’ time to yet again changing our standards and tests is a tremendous failure of leadership in a state now facing that new majority of high-poverty students.

Saying poverty doesn’t matter appears to be a popular and even effective political ploy, but such baseless claims do nothing to end the weight of poverty on our students, our schools, and our state.

The first step to ending a problem is facing that problem: SC has a poverty problem, and to overcome that, we must make tough political decisions about social and educational policy that current education reform plans fail to address.

The U.S. Formula for Children and the Choices We Refuse to Make

The formula for children in the U.S. can be summed up in one word, I think: “harsh.” And the response we should have to this formula is “inexcusable.”

Let’s consider the U.S. formula for children:

If children in the U.S. can survive the gauntlet that is the national formula for children, as young adults they can look forward to crushing debt to attend college so that they can enter a nearly non-existent workforce.

But there is a caveat to this formula: The U.S. formula for children above is for “other people’s children,” that new majority in U.S. public schools and those children living in homes of the working poor, the working class, and the dwindling middle class.

Children of the privileged are exempt.

And what are the choices we refuse to make?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK) has released “Does money affect children’s outcomes?”—based in part on “many studies…from the US.” The key points include:

  • This review identified 34 studies with strong evidence about whether money affects children’s outcomes. Children in lower-income families have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, not just because low income is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.
  • The evidence was strongest for cognitive development and school achievement, followed by social-behavioural development. Income also affects outcomes indirectly impacting on children, including maternal mental health, parenting and home environment.
  • The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.
  • A given sum of money makes significantly more difference to children in low-income than better-off households (but still helps better-off children).
  • Money in early childhood makes most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence it makes more difference to social and behavioural outcomes.
  • Longer-term poverty affects children’s outcomes more severely than short-term poverty. Although many studies were from the US, the mechanisms through which money appears to affect children’s outcomes, including parental stress, anxiety and material deprivation, are equally relevant in the UK.

The third bullet point should not be ignored: The key to eradicating poverty and the negative consequences of poverty for children is to address poverty directly in the lives of children—money—and to address inequity directly in the education of children.

There is no either/or, then, in the education reform debate. It is imperative that we do both.

Ultimately, the U.S. formula for children is based on flawed assumptions. Before we can change that formula, we must change our views of poverty as well as people and children trapped in poverty.

Scarcity and abundance are powerful forces; in the U.S., both are allowed to exist as an ugly game of chance.

The choice of abundance for all is there to be embraced, however, if compassion and community are genuinely a part of the American character.

Closing Gaps?: Addressing Privilege and Poverty

With the release of her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch continues to identify the failures of education reform, exemplified by the charter school movement.

As the evidence mounts discrediting much of the movement, and more of the public discourse recognizes that evidence, we may be poised for rethinking education reform.

If current reform commitments are misguided, then what are our alternatives? Broadly, new ways of thinking about public education must occur before the U.S. can fulfill its obligation to the promise of universal public schools:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words, achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

One aspect of these new ways of thinking about public education that is rarely discussed is that seeking laudable goals (such as closing the achievement gap in schools and the income and upward mobility gaps in society) requires that we address both privilege and poverty—the top and the bottom. Historically and currently, our gaze remains almost exclusively on the bottom.

Richard Reeves in the “The Glass-Floor Problem” poses a provocative and necessary admission about the polar ends of class in the U.S.:

When it comes to the economic malaise facing America, the biggest problem is not the widening gap between rich and poor, but the stagnation of social mobility. When the income gap of one generation becomes an opportunity gap for the next, inequality hardens into social stratification….

These solutions may sound easy, but they are not. While politicians discuss social mobility as a pain-free goal, the unspoken, uncomfortable truth is that relative mobility is a zero-sum game. Opening more doors to applicants from low-income backgrounds often means closing more doors to affluent applicants.

This is delicate territory. Nobody wants parents to stop trying hard for their children. But nor do we want a society in which the social market is rigged in favor of those born into affluence. If we want a competitive economy and an open society, we need the best and brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.

In other words, the declining social mobility in the U.S. includes not only that those at the bottom are victims of poverty being destiny, but also that those at the top are reaping the benefit of privilege being destiny. In both extremes, then, the ideal of a U.S. meritocracy is negated.

Beneath simplistic claims that higher educational attainment (effort) is rewarded with greater income potential lie the ugly truth that poverty blocks children from high-quality educational opportunities while privilege insures better schools, advanced degrees, and access to jobs linked to the networking of privilege.

The lives of adults in the U.S. are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege—and not by the character or tenacity of any individual.

That fact is the basis for the needed new ways of thinking about education posed above.

One example of thinking differently about education is Ravitch, who explains that school-only reform over the past three decades is essentially a “mistake”; instead, social reform must come first so that school reform can work:

And income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.

We should do what works to strengthen our schools: Provide universal early childhood education (the U.S. ranks 24th among 45 nations, according to the Economist); make sure poor women get good prenatal care so their babies are healthy (we are 131st among 185 nations surveyed, according to the March of Dimes and the United Nations); reduce class size (to fewer than 20 students) in schools where students are struggling; insist that all schools have an excellent curriculum that includes the arts and daily physical education, as well as history, civics, science, mathematics and foreign languages; ensure that the schools attended by poor children have guidance counselors, libraries and librarians, social workers, psychologists, after-school programs and summer programs.

Schools should abandon the use of annual standardized tests; we are the only nation that spends billions testing every child every year. We need high standards for those who enter teaching, and we need to trust them as professionals and let them teach and write their own tests to determine what their students have learned and what extra help they need.

Annie Murphy Paul also challenges the in-school only focus on seeking ways to close gaps, shifting away from schools and into the home:

When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.

While Paul’s challenge pulls us one step back from school-only reform, this doesn’t go quite far enough (and stumbles if her argument is interpreted as “blame the parents”)—especially in the last comment quoted above. From Paul’s argument, we must ask ourselves why affluent parents and impoverished parents appear to parent differently.

“Laissez-faire” is a dangerous and potentially ugly word here.

Impoverished adults are not in poverty primarily due to laziness. Impoverished children do not score poorly on standardized tests because their parents do not care about school or are too lazy to parent properly (read: as affluent parents do).

Poverty is a social dynamic that does not allow people to behave in ways that we view as effective or productive. Privilege is a social dynamic that allows people to behave in ways that we mistakenly suggest is grounded in those people’s superior character.

Just as the achievement gap in schools is a marker for the equity gap in society, parenting style differences are reflections of the social dynamics experienced by those parents.

An affluent family with one parent staying home to support the children is allowed to behave in ways that an impoverished single parent working two part-time jobs (with no retirement or healthcare) cannot.

Privilege is a safety net, poverty is a prison.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge both privilege and poverty if we genuinely wish to close gaps in society and schools. Just as Reeves warns, however, recognizing that both privilege and poverty are unfair calls into question the advantages of children born into affluence.

It seems important that we ask as a culture some foundational questions:

  • Is ending the momentum of privilege “taking something away” from a child?
  • Is ending the momentum of poverty “giving something for free” to a child?
  • What are the foundational promises a country must make to insure the human dignity all people deserve, and expressed in that country’s foundational documents (in the U.S., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)?

These questions can only be answered and then acted upon if we make one additional change to how we think—in the larger scale (not in the schools, not in the home, but in society), how we think about the relationship between the Commons (publicly-funded institutions) and the free market.

The free market, we must admit, is amoral; the free market is Social Darwinism: competition produces losers and winners, not equity.

The Commons are potentially the collective ethics of a people.

And finally, then, in order for a free market to work for the common good, the Commons must be primary in the commitment of any people.

The Commons are the foundation upon which the market can do good.

As long as the U.S. views the Commons and the Market as an either/or proposition, and as long as the U.S. prefers the Market, privilege and poverty will continue to be destiny for our children. And for us all.

Let’s go back now to the second new way of viewing public schools from the beginning—reframed within a primary commitment to the Commons:

  • Public education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change as long as social inequity remains and as long as those public schools perpetuate those social inequities.

If we commit to social reform and education reform seeking equity and opportunity, then my first claim at the beginning will be proven wrong.

Here’s to my being wrong.