Sunday, January 22, 2012

PLThomasEdD: South Carolina defies education reform myths

I discovered today a great new voice being published at the mega-blog, Daily Kos. Daily Kos has a left-leaning reputation, which simply means that the people who post there rely heavily on facts, figures, rational thought and reasonable solutions. That's certainly true of the blogger PLThomasEdD, whose essays I spent the morning reading.

I commend his work to South Carolina's education professionals for several reasons, in addition to its reliance on facts, figures, rational thought and reasonable solutions. He's a South Carolinian himself, with a career rooted in public education. His essays are heavily noted and linked to external primary sources. And he communicates his perspectives clearly and forcefully.

This isn't to say that I agree with all of his assertions or perspectives, but his is a voice that should be included in conversations around public education and its so-called reforms (or de-forms), around South Carolina's cultural attitudes toward education and around directions forward.

His most recent essay, for instance, takes on our just-concluded Republican presidential primary and the hardline positions taken by education reformers/deformers, finding each to have benefited from "popular assumptions and stereotypes."

In The New York Times, Charles Blow has documented both the pervasive racism and classism coming from the Republican candidates for president (inequality, anti-black rhetoric, and envy) and the lack of credibility of their narratives. Yet, polls in SC during the primary season show that refrains about free markets, an equitable America, and deficit views of people and children living in poverty work among the majority Republican electorate.

As I noted, PLThomasEdD's text at Daily Kos is heavily-linked to primary sources, so I urge readers to read him there and take advantage of the research links.

The release of Waiting for "Superman" as well as the popular reaction to the documentary revealed that charges about "bad" teachers, corrupt teachers' unions, "miracle" charter schools, and the "missionary zeal" of Teach for America (TFA) recruits are as compelling as the race and class baiting among Republican candidates—again despite ample evidence that the documentary and its central claims are misleading at best.

Republican candidates for president depend on assumptions and stereotypes to drive their agendas and candidacies just as "no excuses" education reformers require several narratives to remain robust in the public in order for their agenda to control education policy in the U.S.: (1) poverty is not an excuse (success and failure are earned, lying in each person and not social mechanisms), (2) teacher quality is the most powerful element in student learning, (3) teachers' unions are preserving a failed status quo, and (4) accountability built on standards and testing are central to sustained education reform.

While SC is the crucible de jure for the 2012 race for presidency in the U.S., let's test (again) as well the claims from "no excuses" reformers in the context of SC.

Here is where being a veteran educator, being a South Carolinian, being familiar with the research literature and contemporary viewpoints, and being capable of synthesizing multiple conclusions into a rational whole proves useful in addressing these topics. Most of the voices given attention in South Carolina on matters pertaining to public education and reform don't combine any two or more of these characteristics.

PLThomasEdD takes apart four grand claims in grand style:

(1) If poverty is not an excuse, then how do we explain the powerful and persistent correlation between poverty/affluence and tests scores? Consider that a recent ranking of the 100 worst schools in the U.S. included over 70 schools from SC. Setting aside the egregious problems with ranking, this list is notable since it reflects what we can safely say about nearly all designations of failing or "bad" schools -- a high rate of poverty. To offer context, I paired with this listing the poverty indices from the SC department of education, revealing that nearly all of the schools labeled "worst" had poverty rates above 90 (out of 100). While suggesting that anyone is using poverty as an excuse is essentially a strawman argument, we must confront that "no excuses" reformers are stating that all of these schools, nearly three-fourths of the list, are filled with students and teachers who simply aren't trying hard enough. That defies logic, but does mask what these correlations between test scores and poverty show: Education alone is not enough to overcome the varied and extensive consequences of poverty.

I would add that much of the data entered into evidence by Carl Epps and Steve Morrison in the ongoing Abbeville v South Carolina case reflected this very conclusion; some of their powerpoint presentations are still available online for review.

The "Corridor of Shame" that Speaker Newt Gingrich referenced during a (misleading) debate response in Myrtle Beach exists because poverty as a determinant factor in student achievement in that region has not been addressed.

(2) If teacher quality is the most powerful element in student learning, then how do we explain the impact of National Board Certified teachers in SC (just one of many initiatives implemented in SC over three decades to address teacher quality) since the state has lead the nation in numbers of teachers gaining national certification, and how do we explain, as identified above, the persistent correlation with student and school success with poverty levels, and not with teachers (SC SAT scores, for example, remain low and correlated with socioeconomic conditions despite those students having the best teachers in the state)? SC proves to be the ideal setting refuting the misleading claim that teachers are the most important aspect of student learning. This mantra by the "no excuses" reformers is factually misleading (out-of-school factors dwarf teacher influence) and a tremendous distraction. As long as time, money, and dialogue are spent on weeding out "bad" teachers and rewarding high-quality teachers, we are not confronting the greatest weight on student learning -- the inequity in their lives. But, again as I asked above, are we to believe that all of the schools labeled as failures and highly correlated with poverty are staffed by "bad" teachers who are collectively and across the state simply not asking enough of their students?

Attend legislative committee meetings on such topics and you'll find that this is, in fact, the belief most widely-held by lawmakers: Leadership is paramount, faculty compliance is key, and giving superintendents and principals the sole and unquestioned authority remove and replace a classroom professional with the least obstruction and disruption will free them to hire the best, brightest and most compliant.

Ask a lawmaker, especially one who has studied closely the wisdom of the American Legislative Exchange Council, to identify the biggest impediment to optimal student achievement outcomes, and he or she will tell you it's the inability to remove and replace bad teachers, who must occupy the largest number of teaching positions in the state. Which leads directly to the third mistaken claim in PLThomasEdD's list:

(3) If teachers' unions are preserving a failed status quo that protects "bad" teachers who are, inexplicably, the primary forces behind low student outcomes, then how do we explain that SC remains low-achieving and is an at-will (non-union) state? No teachers in SC work under contracts, pay scales, or tenure negotiated by a union since unions have no power in the state. And very few teachers even bother to join NEA or SCEA as a result. If the claims embedded in Waiting for "Superman" and nearly every proposal endorsed by "no excuses" reformers are true, then are we to accept that teachers' unions in other states are so powerful they are collapsing education in SC in the same way that every teacher in high-poverty schools is the cause of low achievement? Both claims about the influence of poverty and the singular power of teachers defy logic as well as collapse against the same data the "no excuses" reformers appear to embrace.

In fact, I would argue, do argue, have argued, that our sad state of affairs in South Carolina exists because too few or our education professionals will and do organize themselves.

Rooted in our culture is a misguided individualist ethic that ridicules collective action by the working class.

Events in our civic history warn against collective action by the working class: The Honea Path massacre of 1934, the imposition of "right-to-work-for-less" by the legislature in 1954, the closing of the Darlington Manufacturing Company in 1956 when workers voted to organize.

Our persistent, aggressive resistance to the intervention of federal authority provokes in South Carolinians the very behaviors that defy their best interests: Attempts to establish public schools during Reconstuction failed when those who most needed them rejected the stigma they represented. In the twentieth century, the Segregation Commission led by Senator Marion Gressette during most of the 1950s and 1960s focused on strategies to delay as long as possible implementation of the Brown v Board of Education decision and its subsequent orders, in open defiance of the law. Most recently, our state leaders have taken great pride in defying intervention by the National Labor Relations Board into matters clearly under its purview regarding the decisions and motives of corporate interests.

All of these historical events have fed a psychology of oppression that continues to infect our discourse.

And I, for one, do not hesitate to include education professionals in the definition of South Carolina's working class. So long as professionals have no rights to govern their own profession, so long as their wages and benefits are dictated by a legislature that doesn't regard them as professionals, and so long as the rhetoric of the powerful seeks constantly to keep professionals in a submissive position, we are all working-class subjects of a tyrannical authority.

The situation brewing today in Sumter is reflective of this psychology; organizing for collective action is the clearest solution, but cultural and historical factors weigh so heavily against it. If organizing under the banner of NEA and The SCEA will lead even incrementally toward better conditions for professionals there and elsewhere, it behooves professionals to do it. Else, the cycle continues another generation, and another, and another.


(4) If accountability built on standards and testing are central to sustained education reform, then how do we explain that SC remains trapped today in the same charges of failing schools as we did in 1984 when the state was one of the first and most aggressive states embracing the accountability paradigm of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability for students, teachers, and schools? Throughout the accountability era since 1983's A Nation at Risk, think-tanks and the media have examined and assessed various states' accountability systems. While many conclusions have identified too much variety among the states, SC has, ironically, often been identified as both a low-achieving state and one of the most challenging states based on our standards and tests. SC, like 49 other states, have not found accountability to be effective for raising student outcomes; thus, why should we think that national standards and testing will accomplish something different?

Here's a radical notion to test: Public schools as they exist in South Carolina today -- and as they've evolved since passage of the Education Finance Act in 1977, 34 years ago -- work precisely as they are designed to work, and produce precisely the results they are designed to produce.

Consider this: What if a state designed a system of public instruction to benefit a particular class or stripe of students, and defied overtly and covertly any attempt to revise that system to include any other classes or stripes of students? In such a case, "accountability" serves as a check to ensure that the fundamental goal is being met, and as a stick with which to ridicule and punish those not meeting the standard, thereby reinforcing the system as useful and effective over time?

In my view, this goes far toward explaining our circumstance. Costs of achieving successful student outcomes across all strata of students are identifiable -- and high. But isn't the intent of those who control our government and its systems of raising and appropriating the funds necessary to meet those costs, in large part because it isn't the intent of those who control our government and its systems to achieve successful student outcomes across all strata of students. In sum, those who are meant to do well receive the necessary support -- both from the state coffers and through the happy devices of "local control" -- while those who aren't meant to do well, and who never have been meant to do well, are left to hang by the same devices of "local control."

The system, therefore, produces precisely what the system is designed to produce.

Newt Gingrich has stood on a caustic claim about children living in poverty, as reported by Mail Online:

"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works," Mr Gingrich told fundraisers Thursday night at a dinner outside Des Moines, Iowa.

"So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash'... unless it's illegal."

This stereotype of people trapped in poverty being inherently lazy and prone to criminality is a base cousin to the claims being leveled at students and teachers by the "no excuses" reformers—all of which are false but all of which remain effective.

U.S. politics and education would do well to listen and look carefully at SC during this primary season. Our democracy and children deserve better than the attacks being leveled on the powerless by the powerful whether the context is politics or education. SC remains the state of vivid lessons needing our attention.

Here, here.

No comments:

Post a Comment