Sharing information and reporting on all that reeks in American education, especially corporate reform in K12 education, the agenda to privatize the right to a free public education for every child, and general corruption in K12-higher education. Calling out and exposing rather than cowering.

AND eager for your help. Have a story of power, manipulation, self-interest or injustice which needs attention? Let me know and we'll let the world discover "what's that smell."

"If you're a profession of sheep, then you'll be run by wolves." -- David C. Berliner

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: Everything else is public relations." -- George Orwell

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -- Paulo Freire

*A slideshow of Ed Reform-Critical Boxer's "Greatest Hits" memes runs at the bottom of this page.*



Thursday, December 31, 2015

Merry New Year in the Era of ESSA

May we fight the good fight for the benefit of our children, work to address poverty in and outside of school, avoid hypocritical rustications, stay focused but humble, and change what needs to be changed for the better to preserve life, liberty, and an equitable pursuit of happiness for all citiens, without fear of reprisal for opting out, criticizing Teach For America, Common Core, ESSA, and all that is worthy of pause, redirection, or cessation. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Merry Christmas, 1979-Style!

Two-year old me wishes you a happy holiday season via this groundbreaking rap from Kurtis Blow, whom I wouldn't know about for at least another 20 years but would have wanted you to know about had I known about it then. Did you follow that? ;)

The rap reminds me of the time I accompanied my father on a trucking trip through New York State.  I was in fifth grade, if memory serves. I remember Ithaca, Syracuse, and a town called White Plains (?) or White Falls. I remember a complete white out while we were on the road and a deer jumping in front of the cab so high into the sky it was on level with the 18-wheeler's windshield. Luckily it made  it past us! I recall stopping at a shop and getting a brownie almost as big as my head. I remember flipping of someone in a Camaro who almost ran over me. I remember stopping in a drug store and seeing the Todd McFarlane Marvel  Poster Book

Dad purchased a truck-stop cassette tape of Christmas rap songs somewhere along the way, which we listened to for as long as we could before tossing it out the window! We were harsh critics. I don't think Blow's rap was on the tape. 

Anyway, happy holidays and Merry Christmas! 

Monday, November 23, 2015

NCTE 2015 Takes Stand Against Pearson; It's "Bloody"-well Time.

There are days when Paul Thomas is my hero. We have many similarities. We're both from working class, Southern backgrounds. We're both educators. We share an acute awareness of when our Southern accents are "showing." We share some thoughts on policy and education reform. We're both poor white boys what done good in edu-macating ourselves and others. We both doubt the existence of real academic and social meritocracies. We both study poverty. We have deep ties to the Carolinas. We both appreciate a good comic book.

N.o C.omment of Change is already upon us? 
He's a tenured professor at Furman University, though. Currently, I'm a substitute teacher. He's an established member of the National Council of Teachers of English. I protested the organization's involvement in education reform efforts several years ago by no longer giving them my membership dollars.

In terms of how academia protects its own, Thomas has provisions in place that I do not have and never had when I was a professor, mainly tenure.

For better or worse, this means he can more confidently say controversial things without serious retribution than can early career scholars or those who want to climb the career ladder in English Education.

I know I've paid a price in dropping my membership, encouraging others to protest NCTE via doing the same, and even suggesting it is time for a new literacy organization that would be unencumbered by the dirty money and persuasion of well-funded reformer representatives. Less infiltrated, if you will.

Indeed, when I tried to express my passion, concern, and frustration with Common Core and associated constructs to students, peers, and the senior English Education professor at Washington State University, my most-recent college-level gig, I was labeled "an angry young man." I was angry and still have angry moments regarding what is happening in public education, and surely I wanted my pre-service teachers to be aware of the histories, problematics, and realities of teaching in Obama-era education environs. But the label was slapped onto me as if it was the only word to describe me.

Interestingly enough, when NCTE members tweeted an advertisement for members to join them on the convention floor this weekend to protest Pearson, one tweet suggested by doing so they could "share their anger." I faced the accusation of being angry as an isolation tactic.  NCTE-goers were having theirs appealed to and embraced in an inclusionary, persuasive tactic approach.

Thomas has some strong words about the protest that took place this weekend, and they are absolutely must-read. See them *here*.

Thomas seems to embrace the protest, but he still feels that NCTE has "blood on its hands."

Me too.

While I appreciate the work of NCTE's Conference of English Education Social Justice Committee to organize the protest, I recognize that Pearson's presence has been even more overwhelming on NCTE's convention floors in years past, that NCTE members have had knowledge of the Common Core State Standards since at least 2010, that NCTE accepted almost $300,000 from the Gates Foundation and that the National Writing Project affiliated with NCTE has accepted even more Gates money, and that no protests were organized from 2010-2014.

My questions regarding the protest are: Why now? Why not in previous years? Who stands most to gain from press about the event? Why was Pearson the only target? Why not protest the whole of Race to the Top/No Child Left Behind reforms, including the Common Core and Gates' control of education policy? Is there a connection between staging the protest this year and it being held during an election cycle (did you know that Chelsea Clinton spoke at this year's NCTE conference?) when President Obama is winding up his last term as president?

Thomas is still an NCTE insider. Despite sincere efforts to find alternative venues for my on voice and activism, I remain on the fringe. With as many shared members between NCTE and the BATS, with whom I've also had some issues, and BATS connections to United Opt Out, perhaps this is not surprising. That's fine, though. It's easy to be brave when everyone is telling you to be brave. When you need to be your bravest, however, is when no one is telling you to be brave. 
At least Doom respects transparency. 

There are those of us who are or were once involved in NCTE who heeded the call to share our feelings without the warm embrace of the organization, who called "BS" years before this weekend, and who may have paid a precious price for it.

Thomas ends his column with a reference to Frankenstein:
I fully accept Pearson et al. are the monsters, but literature shows us we must look at the Drs. Frankenstein for how the monsters came about.
Indubitably. To refer to trends in superhero comics, a genre within a medium that Thomas and I both study, not even the bad guys think of themselves as villains anymore.

Dr. Doom, Magneto, and..... NCTE? 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What's Wrong With This Image?: NPE's Bill Gates Infographic

The Network for Public Education is circulating an infographic detailing the history of Bill Gates' efforts to influence American schooling. It spans fifteen years in timeline fashion and illustrates a growing presence and ambition. The timeline ends in 2015 with the claim that NAEP scores are flat under Gates-era reforms: "US NAEP scores decline -- Time To End The Experiment."
A truly important indicator of our students' intelligence, growth and potential?

As infographics go, this one is a telling read. Links to articles act as evidence of the claims made in
most entries. However, there is one flaw. One can read the visual as suggesting that because NAEP scores are not improving, Gates' reform efforts need to end so that someone or something else can come along and get those scores up.

Those who are resisting current education reform efforts know not to put stock in the NAEP scores as any meaningful indicator. See Diane Ravitch's comments on the test in Reign of Error, for example. I believe what the graphic's creators meant to convey is that middling NAEP scores were part of the "problems" in American education that Gates wanted to "fix." His programs and influence have not accomplished a major goal that Gates focused on as a rhetorical means to gain as much control as he has. Since they failed to do what they said they would do, they shouldn't continue.

See the otherwise excellent graphic *here*  to see what I mean.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Critiquing the Meritocracy: Two Good Reads

I encourage you to read the following two short pieces and consider them in relation to poverty, schooling, and society. One is entitled "Don't Give My Kid an Award." Written by a conscientious mother, this text is an example of someone with privilege explicating that privilege while using her son's schooling experience as a vignetted informal case study. The other, "How the Myth of Meritocracy Ruins Students," reveals how even the most liberal and open-minded "check your privilegers"  benefit from embracing the meritocracy mindset, at the expense of more-vulnerable citizens.

Friday, October 16, 2015

_Our Kids_ Reflections, Part 10: Chapter 6: "What is to Be Done?"

Part 10, Chapter 6: “What is to Be Done?” Poverty and Economic Inequity in Putnam’s _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_.

After detailing aspects of economic inequity through the lenses of family, parenting, schools, and community in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam attempts a closing chapter that offers possible actions for addressing growing economic gaps and opportunity gaps in contemporary American society.

Progress in such equity may be difficult, given “growing class segregation” which may lead to less
Search "Putnam" to read my other
installments on this book, my connections to it,
and how it can help you grow a social justice agenda.
empathy than is needed (230) to understand what less privileged people experience. The bootstrap narrative that once seemed to serve so many so well also works against mobility equity and empathy, as many continue to believe, “If I and my classmates could climb the ladder…so could kids from modest backgrounds today” (230).

One practical solution that might hit American Capitalists in their dominating ethos is the notion of “opportunity costs,” a socioeconomic explanation of how the opportunity gap hurts all citizens, not just the poor, especially in terms of money spent or wasted (231).  Putnam argues that “investment in poor kids raises the rate of growth for everyone, at the same time leveling the playing field in favor of poor kids” (231). But is “everyone” a strong enough concept for Capitalists to embrace reform, especially in America’s hyper-competitive capitalism that favors notions of winning and losing? In such a system, does anyone who has more than someone else want to favor the field for someone who has less? Even though much research suggests raising up the bottom will elevate most everyone, I am not sure American society is willing to give up its fierce concept of competition and conspicuous consumerism.  Even if, as Putnam argues, “Writing off such a large fraction of our youth is an awfully expensive course of inaction,” it might be an expense many well-off Americans are willing to absorb to keep their status, their perceived edge (233).

After attending to opportunity costs, Putnam revisits his earlier chapters in order, providing specific suggestions that would require the redistribution of tax funds (231) he calls for in this chapter’s opening pages:


1.       Facilitate family planning such that the American norm becomes “childbearing by design” rather than “by default” across social strata (245).
2.       Expand tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit.
3.       Protec/strengthen social programs like food stamps, housing vouchers and child care that provide “safety net” services.
4.       Reduce incarceration for nonviolent crimes.
5.       Enhance rehabilitation services (245-248).


1.       More parental leave
2.       Nix welfare policies requiring mothers to work in the first year of a baby’s life.
3.       Provide affordable, high-quality, center-based daycare for low-income families.
4.       Make sure daycare teachers are well-trained and well-paid.
5.       Create “wraparound” family services (248-251).


1.       Shrink growing residential segregation by moving kids, money, and/or teachers to different schools.
2.       Revisit the negative impacts zoning regulations and home mortgage deductions have on residential segregation.
3.       Publicly subsidize mixed-income housing.
4.       Keep high-quality teachers in poor schools.
5.       Create school cultures in which such teachers can teach rather than babysit.
6.       Extend school hours to offer more extracurriculars and enrichment opportunities.
7.       Put social and health services in schools serving poor children.
8.       Support the notion of neighborhood schools.*
9.       Reinvest in vocational education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
10.   Strengthen the abilities of community colleges to better serve poor communities (251-258).

Especially in late 2015, as presidential election season gears up, many may read this list and connect it to the tone of certain candidates’ agendas. 

Reconfiguring the tax code and redistribution of wealth sounds very much like what we hear from Bernie Sanders, but it also might recollect what we hear many in the media say will keep him out of the presidency. I hearken back to Hillary Clinton’s dismissive tone regarding Sanders’ big ideas and her reiteration of the phrase “I know how to get things done” in the recent Democratic debate. In that phrase and the disbelief I see surrounding Sanders’ social change agenda, I see those old notions of American Capitalism where it is just a “given” that big-money interests have to be placated for any sort of change, and only the modicum of social change can trickle down to those most in need because big profiteers need to keep profiting, and to do that, some have to win and some have to lose. I noticed Hillary Clinton using the rhetoric of the American Dream, the bootstrap narrative, too. To enact many of the social programs and reconfigurations of tax systems and other systems where private money is involved (see prisons, and, more and more frequently, public schools), we will have to acknowledge the myth of the American Dream and stop embracing as reality something that reifies the old systems of socioeconomic inequalities.

Furthermore, when we see politicians continue to invest in the mythos, we need to be especially critical of why they are doing so.

Regarding the “schools” suggestions, I was less fraught over Putnam’s suggestions than I expected. The community college suggestions seem to align with President Obama’s push to bolster the import of community colleges.   Putnam does mention charter schools as a possible solution when he talks about neighborhood schools (*), which can be worrisome if one thinks that is where the bulk of Putnam’s reform efforts reside. I however, found more promise in the notion of transforming public schools into bustling community centers.

An image of American cultural values
or one which challenges them?
 Imagine a school open 24 hours a day, with a wide range of health care services not housed only in hospitals, but in clinic spaces on grounds. Imagine, even, cafeterias open all day and constant access to showers and even sleeping spaces. Surely our existing budgets and cultural expectations of schooling do not provide for this sort of scenario, and I would never advocate for teachers’ work days to be extended such that they see themselves working at a boarding school, but I see great potential in making every public school more of a support ecology, a built-in societal safety net, than they currently exhibit. I do not pretend to have the details worked out – and a lack of practical strategies beyond basic suggestions certainly dominates this chapter --  but I believe the best transformative practices Putnam offers reside in the notion of transforming schools into vibrant, always-active community centers.

1.       Provide extracurricular opportunities free of economic hardships via pay-to-play policies.
2.       Fund high-quality mentoring programs, perhaps via the Ameri-Corps program.
3.       Move poor families to better neighborhoods (258-260).
4.       Restore working-class wages.

Putnam closes with a refrain of his key appeal: That if we want to improve the lives of poor children, we need to see them as belonging to all of us. All kids need to be seen as “our kids,” as Putnam suggests once seemed the case. He states that even those who still buy in to Emersonian notions of self-reliance and other seemingly quintessentially American notions like manifest destiny, rugged individualism, and the American Dream’s work rhetoric “should acknowledge our responsibility to these children. For America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them” (261). Low on details but full of possibilities, this final chapter is more guidepost than atlas, but better to work with scant direction than have no awareness at all of current pathways deleterious to so many and already closing in on our most vulnerable children and families.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On Presidential Endorsements, Neutral Stances, and "New-Trail" Stances

The NEA has joined the AFT in endorsing Hillary Clinton as the choice presidential candidate, *despite many members' objections.* Meanwhile, other professional organizations in teaching and teacher education continue to ride out their "neutral" stances on Common Core and associated education reform measures of the Clinton-Bush II-Obama era.

With so much evidence of cabal/cartel-style, dim-luminati "leadership" at play, what's a dog to do? Education Reform-Critical Boxer has this advice:

Me? I might advise doing a Google search for "quotes on starting new." Shelley comes to mind as well:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
"Endorse a presidential candidate without considering the views of my membership?
I did it thirty-five minutes ago." 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Race and Class Collide in a Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools": From The New York Times

Kate Taylor, reporter for The New York Times, recently published a story rife with insights in the intersectionalities of prejudice, fear, and segregationist idealisms associated with contemporary American values regarding public schools. As someone deep into the messages in Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, I found the story fascinating.

Here's its crux: When overcrowding as P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, New York, became a concern, city officials suggested moving students from that school to nearby P.S. 307, which has more than enough space to accommodate the overflow. However, when rezoning to enact this plan was pitched, stakeholders took issue. Some simply do not want the levels of racial and socioeconomic intermingling the move would facilitate in one of America's most segregated school systems.

Read the article by clicking *here*.  Marvel that some of the people quoted live in the North in 2015 and not Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1965. Note how test scores are a focus regarding defining quality schools and "quality" students.

Putnam says in Our Kids that growing housing and community segregation between the well-off and the poor presents challenges to empathy, since so few rich kids actually see kids not as well off as they do. In this story, there is a concerted effort to keep well-off children away from poorer children, to keep black and brown kids away from Anglos and people of East Asian decent. There's even palpable concern about busing as a means of achieving a racially and economically diverse student body -- with space to move and mingle!

The adults in this situation are perpetuating the mentalities that keep the American populus from addressing growing social mobility gaps and opportunity gaps. Taylor's story exemplifies the "I got mine" attitude and growing sense of insularity and "unknowability of the self from the other" that even some liberal-minded social justice groups' members use to defend exclusionary spaces.

May the members of this community see all the young people at both these schools -- attending now and attending in the near future -- as their kids, every one of them.

Bernie Sanders On Growing Economic Inequality

In this video, when Sanders says the middle class is shrinking, he means folks once in the middle class are now living in poverty. Consider this video in relation to the posts on Robert Putnam's Our Kids that I have posted so far.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

_Our Kids_ Reflections: Part 9; Chapter 4: “Schooling” – Concatenations & Ecologies; Knapsacks & Echoes – and Bindles & Buses?

Part 9; Chapter 4: “Schooling” – Concatenations & Ecologies; Knapsacks & Echoes – and Bindles & Buses?

With great trepidation did I approach the “Schooling” chapter of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  I worried he would echo the rhetoric of current opportunistic corporate reformers. Early on, he offers evidence that he might do as much. He profiles Troy High School, mislabeling it as a “public magnet school” (143), for example, despite its demanding entrance requirements and selection criteria (I define a public school as one which takes all comers within its district boundaries; others may find Putnam’s labeling of Troy as accurate).  I did not feel Troy is a true public school, so the description called into question Putnam’s knowledge of secondary education. 

Further, Geoffrey Canada praised the book on the back of its dust jacket. Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is known as a successful education reformer due to the type of charter school he helped create in New York. Canada has kept his school successful in part by finding ways to remove students from the school when they fail to perform.  Both Canada and Putnam are Harvard men, Canada via graduating from the university and Putnam via working there. Harvard brazenly positions itself at the intersections of schooling, corporate initiative and entrepreneurial education, so I worried Putnam might follow the lead of many other alternative schooling advocates and place the blame for growing income inequality within and across races squarely on the shoulders of America’s public education system.

Thankfully, he does not.

He admits that “central question[s]” of the chapter are “Do schools in American today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-nots kids,” do they reduce them, or do they “have little effect either way?” and if schools do affect mobility, “are they causes of class divergence of merely sites of class divergence?” (160). His findings suggest that many of the elements of schooling which education reformers are quick to tout as the reasons schools are failing their communities  -- bad test scores and poorly-educated teachers, for example – are not reasons the opportunity gap continues to grow. In short, schools reflect growing socioeconomic stratification, but, generally speaking, are not a cause of it.

Kids are more likely to suffer from extenuating circumstances affecting their schooling than from schools themselves. For example, Putnam discusses how kids from more-educated parents might have access to more “institutional savvy” when it comes to navigating course selection, extracurricular participation, or knowing what it takes to get into college (157).

Regarding standardized testing, many conscientious educators have known for years that such tests’ scores correlate most strongly with zip code, salary, and education. That is to say that most standardized tests tell us very little about learning but tell us much about what part of town in which a kid lives and how much money and education his or her parents might have. Citing a study by Stanford’s Sean Reardon (For what it is worth, Stanford has a reputation for entrepreneurial education reform as well as does Putnam’s home university), Putnam points to a “widening class gap in both math and reading scores among American kids in recent decades” (161). As with many other aspects of American living, “this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing” (161). Unlike many of the other factors in which this scissor effect is apparent, test scores do not matter that much in the long run, anyway, though certainly current education policies push parents and teachers into thinking they are more important than they are. 

Indeed, Putnam says of Reardon’s study that it suggests “that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten” (162). 

Despite evidence that schools do not seem to perpetuate mobility gaps, multiple studies suggest “exceptionally wide differences in academic outcomes between schools attended by affluent kids and schools attended by their impoverished counterparts” (163). If schools are not nurturing this inequality, what is?

Putnam points first to “residential sorting” (163), the housing segregation he mentioned in previous chapters and which I have discussed in previous reflections. Neighborhood reputations and even housing costs are associated with “good schools” in the competitive American mindset. With communities more segregated by income than ever before, so much so that Putnam claims well-off kids may never see poorer kids and therefore be less likely to recognize that poverty exists or sympathize with those less fortunate, compounding social inequities, is it surprising to note that poor kids and more-affluent kids attend separate schools at greater rates now than in the 1950s Putnam glorifies (163)?

Anticipating that advocates of school choice might interpret this information as relevant to their agendas, Putnam states that school choice would “not likely” make a difference to the lower-class kids he profiles in his chapters. Yet again my worries that pro-education reform sentiments would proliferate in this chapter were proved unfounded.

Turning to the work of Orfield and Eaton, Putnam reveals that, often, “poor kids achieve more in high-income schools” and this phenomenon is a consistent research finding. Indeed, some studies suggest  high school kids’ learning may correlate more strongly with their classmates’ family backgrounds than with their own (165)!

Immediately, I thought of busing along socioeconomic lines as a possible solution
to social mobility inequity. Putnam does not mention it, however. Why?
Based on this consistency, I have to wonder if a new wave of busing regulations need to be introduced in public education. Is it time for socio-economic busing?

Much evidence suggests busing programs helped desegregate schools by race, obviously, and that, perhaps less obviously, desegregation was positive for minority students and for school populations overall. Could busing poor children to affluent districts and affluent students to less affluent districts be a concrete means of addressing the growing housing and community segregation Putnam sees in American society, a means of returning American adults’ mindsets to those that see all kids as their kids? Perhaps, but, puzzlingly, Putnam never mentions busing along socioeconomic lines in Our Kids.

Instead, Putnam tries to explain why “the socioeconomic composition of a school seem[s] to have such a powerful impact on its students” (165). He assumes some may hypothesize that school financing must offer some explanation. Since schools in richer districts have more money via higher
Can the most famous part of this text be a means of exploring poverty?
Is the parallel to the stresses of war and the stresses of poverty fair?
property taxes, they can hire better teachers and offer more programs, right? Perhaps, but Putnam says “school finance is probably not a major contributor to the growth in the class gap” (165).
Rather -- recall the quote about kindergarten from above paragraphs – “the things that students bring with them to school” matter much more regarding opportunity gaps. The plight of poor American school children is much less akin to any Jane Austen novel and more akin to *Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. 

Schools in affluent areas have more parental involvement and may house kids less affected by drugs, homelessness, crime and other heavy stresses. This means kids are influenced by fewer children experiencing these odious aspects as well. Parents in high-income areas “demand a more academically rigorous curriculum” (168) –  probably because of their institutional savvy! As many as three times the number of AP classes are offered in higher-income area schools compared to others, says Putnam (168). While state financing may not exacerbate inequality, what Putnam calls “para-school funding” does (167). More affluent communities are able to pour more funds not allocated by the government into schools. In this instance, kids in lower-income schools suffer because of what they can’t carry: extra income. Peer pressure is noted as important too. That is, kids contribute to a school’s culture as one in which there is a drive to do well. But, as Putnam reminds, this mindset also most likely derives from the standards set by affluent parents (169).
The In/Visible Bindle as metaphor for the things poor kids
carry and for what they can't carry to school. Too
on the nose or perfect for a poverty-first social justice agenda?

A “concatenation of disadvantage” – the things they carry and the things they cannot carry – keeps kids from doing as well as they could if they had more access to wealth and opportunity (171). The concatenation of disadvantage, comprised of multiple stresses, “intrude[s] into the classroom in high poverty schools,” says Putnam in a particularly poignant and poetic turn of phrase. Whereas I might continue the O’Brien reference to embrace an economics-based version of Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack – the binding bindle? – Putnam rebrands these disadvantages as “ecological challenges” facing high-poverty schools (173).

These ecological stresses affect teachers too, and Putnam does parallel the thinking of education reformers who want the public to think the teacher is the most important element of a classroom in so much as he says that teachers may contribute to low-income schools’ producing lower-achieving students, but he does not place blame on the teachers’ shoulders but on the concatenation, the ecology, the brew of stresses, the “climate of disorder and even danger” that affects them and their students and contributes to low morale, burn out, and high turnover (173).

To sum, when it comes to the question of whether schools contribute to the opportunity gap,

The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to the kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school…than by what schools do to them. The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids. The growing class segregation of our neighborhoods and thus our schools means that middle-class kids…hear mostly encouraging and beneficial echoes at school. Whereas lower-class kids…hear mostly discouraging and harmful echoes (182).

Echoes. Loud enough to make one want to scream. Or to start up some buses, perhaps?

Monday, September 7, 2015

What You Can Do RIGHT NOW to Address Economic Equity Gaps in Public Schools: Interlude II

Reforming Pay-to-Play Policies In Public Schools to Shrink the Mobility Gap, Grow Opportunity Gap

As college football revs into high gear and public schools begin across the nation, one of Robert Putnam’s suggestions for addressing poverty and economic inequities between affluent kids and poor kids resonates as particularly timely. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, a steadfast Putnam believes extracurricular activities offer “as close to a magic bullet” for closing opportunities gaps as Americans are able to find (258). However, currently an odious element inherent in extracurricular participation in school-based happenings wedges have-nots from affordances offered the better-off.

High school and college sports season is upon us, including exciting
match-ups like this one pitting my Masters-degree-granting institution
against my undergraduate alma mater

Pay-to-play policies are the culprits, called “perverse” by Putnam, who matter-of-factly states:
[I]f you are concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you could do right now. Close this book, visit your superintendent – better yet, take a friend with you – and ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they force kids to wear yellow stars….Explain that everyone…will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band. Insist that pay-to-play be ended (258).
Putnam suggests offering one’s assistance in serving poor children better as well, both in class and beyond it. He sees coaches, mentors, and others serving in extracurricular leadership capacities as offering some of the best hopes for progress in addressing the opportunity gap. Perhaps this is because “Involvement in extracurricular activities has been shown repeatedly to have measurably favorable consequences,” a truth “even after controlling for family background, cognitive skills, and many other potentially confounding variables” (174).  According to Putnam, among the favorable consequences of engaging in extracurricular goings-on are:
  • ·         Higher grades
  • ·         Lower drop-out rates
  • ·         Lower truancy
  • ·         Better work habits
  • ·         Higher educational aspirations
  • ·         Lower delinquency rates
  • ·         Greater self-esteem
  • ·         More resilience
  • ·         More civic engagement
  • ·         Even higher future wages and occupational attainment (174)
  • ·         Building soft skills and character (176)

Little wonder Putnam calls extracurriculars and those who support them “magic!”

 Indeed, when kids take on leadership positions within such activities, research suggests the benefits are even more impressive. While sure to point out that few studies coming to such conclusions are “true experiments” in that participants cannot be randomly assigned as a participant or nonparticipant, meaning there could be other variables correlating success and involvement in extracurriculars, Putnam sticks to his researcher’s hunch that enough evidence exists to note the longstanding correlations as pertinent and important.

Does my home-town district have pay-to-play policies? Like many adults, I
have no idea, but Robert Putnam says knowing this information and fighting against
such policies where they exist is key to addressing mobility gaps for students. 
Putnam does not hesitate to state that “extracurricular participation matters for upward mobility,” but poor kids are between 30%-50% less likely to participate in sports and/or clubs than more-affluent peers (176). Indeed, as with so many other social constructs mentioned in Our Kids, richer kids’ rates of participation are rising at the same time as poor kids’ rates of participation are falling (177). Surely pay-to-play policies marginalize would-be participants from poor families. Putnam calls such policies “insidious” (180) and sees them as indicative of the cultural shifts away from a sense of communal responsibility toward a community’s young people and toward segregation and institutionalized, generally-accepted segregation.

Pay-to-play fees take many forms. Some, where pay-to-play is supposed to be illegal, take the form of donations that are de facto mandates. Other districts enforce fees to play certain sports or to be in the band. Equipment costs may be part of the fees or another added expense. While some schools offer waivers for poorer kids, Putnam claims that the “inevitable stigma attached to the waiver” (181) may be enough to keep less-affluent children away.

Given that poor kids are even less likely to participate in after-school activities that are not school-based, eliminating pay-to-play policies could facilitate the “modest leveling effect on extracurricular participation” that public schools can provide (181).

 As a former band geek from a working-class family, I can attest to the discipline, structure, and sense
That's me, leading the band in 1993 or 1994,
building my skills with the help of the school
community, my band directors and boosters.
of place I found in extracurriculars like jazz band and marching band. While I remember my family purchasing a clarinet for me in middle school via a rent-to-own program, I do not remember paying any fees for using replacement instruments or when I switched to bass clarinet, contra-bass clarinet, or alto and tenor saxophones, all provided by the school. I remember that we had to buy reeds, but even those costs could get defrayed when it was clear a player needed one for the greater benefit of the band.

Our band boosters were busy, to be sure, and we still scrimped. I remember impressing the band directors when I noticed that if we cut our music holder folders in half and stapled the loose half along the side and bottom, we could save by not having to purchase as many over time, for example.

Surely I felt the sting of not being from the North side of town (readers from my hometown will understand why I capitalize “North”) and being known as a weird kid a little rougher around the edges than many.  For example, while it was a longstanding tradition for the drum major to earn the MVP award at the end of the year, that didn’t happen in my senior year. I know that because that was the second year I was drum major for the marching band, one of the very first instances in my life of folks telling me I was “robbed” of a deserved honor.

I remember beating out every other contender for drum major by a two-to-one margin when try-outs were held. The entire band voted after seeing us lead a small portion of our band, which was a diverse unit in many ways. Had it not been socioeconomically diverse, I doubt I would have won despite a superior performance.  As evidence of my prowess, I do not mean that I beat the second place finisher by twice as many votes. I mean I outscored the entire field by twice as many votes.

Still, I seemed an unlikely outsider by the two directors, both of whom seemed to want to talk me out of the position at times. I recall a trumpet player encouraging me to use the whistle one director had given me at our first football game, resulting in a desired rejection from the stadium that the football coaches were able to talk officials out of enforcing in favor of a fifteen yard penalty. That director must have just assumed I knew not to blow the whistle during a game. Obviously (perhaps very obvious to the trumpeter) I didn’t have that cultural cognizance yet!

 I remember the other director asking if I really thought I could direct music after I showed her my skills and misdirected beats two and three of a four-four stroke, taking beat two to the outside of my body and beat three to the inside. Generally, though, once they saw I had a fire and mettle, they supported me as peer leader of the band.

Most of all, regarding the process by which I became drum major, though, I recall creating and practicing my kata, calling commands and executing them in reverse, on an empty red-clay field beside our trailer home, drawing the attention of a nearby neighbor who wanted to know why I was yelling and refused to chain the pit bull who accompanied him and who the neighbor made sure to inform me I was disturbing. It was under that pressure and duress that I honed the sequence that won me that two-to-one margin.  

I know it's all in how you breed them, but I had no idea
how my curious neighbor had bred his pit bull. 
As well, when our high school band was chosen to visit Paris, France, for a New Year’s parade, family and boosters and other donors made sure I was able to go, though I did have to remind one director, who asked me why I thought it was more important for me to attend than it was for others in the band to attend, of my position.

Overall, my ability to participate in band in high school and the influences that facilitated my full participation helped instill a confidence in me that I could not only do well in life, but that I could lead in my own way. While currently I’m at a low point in my career and personal life, still not fully employed and an outsider to my chosen fields in academia and struggling to find my place again, the discipline, resiliency and character-building I learned through this extracurricular forged my previous success and will have instilled in me the stuffs I need to be successful again. 

Had my district enforced pay-to-pay policies, I might never have thought I was worthy enough to lead peers, to march to my own beat while fully capable of leading the beat of others.

I join Putnam is asking you to address opportunity gaps in your children’s schools by eliminating pay-to-play policies in favor of strategies that embrace an “our kids” mentality. Putnam is short on specific strategies, but he appears to see parental and community activism as the start of alternatives to these insidious, segregationist requirements. 

For more on pay-to-play in public schools, including concrete suggestions, see *"The Activity Gap"*  and resources *here* and *here.*

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pavement, Principals, Police and Privilege: My Days Taking My Education Reform Resistance Agenda Away From the Internet and Onto the Street

Over the last ten days, I have taken my advocacy agenda regarding reform in public education out of the blogosphere and onto the streets.

As a current exiled academic in the field of education studies (I hold a Ph.D. in English Education), a father of two elementary school students, the husband of a public school teacher, and a former middle school and high school English teacher and English Language Arts professor, I try to do my part to spread the word about the troublesome nature of current corporacratic education reforms harming our children and putting their personal data at risk.

Staunchly anti-Common Core, anti-SBAC, anti-PARCC, anti-TFA, and anti-VAM, I have blogged, tweeted, forwarded links and Facebooked regarding education reform policies since 2013, first at ** but eventually here at *EduStank.* In the fall of 2013 at Washington State University, I even attempted an all-education-reform-centric section of Freshmen Writing 101. For the most part, though, my anti-education reform agenda has been relegated to the Internet. Last week, I decided that needed to change.

So, over the last two weeks, I’ve spent several mornings and afternoons on the sidewalks across from high-traffic areas in Pullman, Washington’s school district, focusing on the elementary schools and the one middle school, picketing toxic standardized testing and supporting parents’ rights to opt out of the state tests. My goal was to appear pro-parent, pro-child, pro-opt out, advertise for United Opt, and give the impression I just wanted to inform parents of their rights to refuse the tests for their children even if they do not care to do so.  Or, my goal evolved as such, anyway.

The push to move beyond the keyboard and onto the streets was the result of several factors. For one, I had car trouble on a day I needed to be at a job interview and felt a need to salvage my day, given I was unable to make the interview. The day coincided with my kids’ first day of school, so I missed their first day photos and well-wishes for the first time since they’ve been attending school. The day felt like a major loss in its early going.

 As well, recently I had sent a tweet to Washington State University’s College of Education encouraging students to *ask their methods professors to answer these questions regarding their role in current education policy.* I had sent the same request to dozens of university twitter accounts last year, but, perhaps since I focused on the local university alone this year, my last university of employment, I fantasized that some students had read the tweet and heeded my advice, only to be told by a professor or two, “Well, you don’t exactly see him out on the streets protesting these policies, do you?” Even in make-believe, I couldn’t let that stand.

Furthermore, I live within easy walking distance of my kids’ elementary school, also where my wife works, and knew if I didn’t take the opportunity to act on this first day of school – when parents would be more attentive to their children and more likely to be the ones dropping them off and picking them up compared to the coming days – I might not ever have the courage to act on a first day of school again. I could have protested at the start of the previous school year, after all, and considered it but chickened out. As well, if I were to do this now, I felt it would show cowardice to start anywhere except at my own kids’ school.

So, I crafted a hastily-made sign and hit the pavement, noting the traffic patterns and smiling and waving at parents as they drove into parking lots and loading zones to pick up their little scholars. That was last Wednesday. Since then, I’ve visited every elementary school and the middle school in the Pullman district. To date, I’ve avoided the high school because opting out of the tests at the sophomore- and junior-levels could keep students from graduating, whereas there are no penalties to that degree for opting out in grades 3-9.
Baby's first protest sign. And my feet. 

What I learned from my first day of giving my agenda a physical presence is as follows. I seemed to have pissed off the school’s principal, who called me on my cell phone almost immediately after I had vacated the premises, referred to me by my first name even though we are not on a first-name basis (She should have referred to me as Mr. Carter at the least; Dr. Carter to be most accurate), accused me of being on school property, and informed me that it was illegal to be on school property doing what I was doing and if I wanted to continue my protest – Well, I didn’t let her finish. Her hectic, berating tone and lack of respect in addressing me was too much. I took a page out Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and yelled louder than my accuser. “You do what you have to do. Rest assured I’ll do what I have to do. Goodbye,” I told her. But, she was right. After school was over and all traffic had dispersed, I did walk across the school parking lot as doing so was a shortcut to my home. Whether she was referring to seeing me do that or accusing me of stepping on school property via the adjoining sidewalks, I do not know.

I assume I frustrated some parents too, who did not appreciate seeing a protester on their kids’ first day of school and may have tipped off the principal, but, as I mentioned, the first day of school only comes once a year and is prime time for getting parents’ attention.

Lessons learned? First off, I needed to contact my wife to let her know her principal might be talking to her. Text message sent. Warning delivered. Next, having said, “I’ll do what I have to do,” to be a man of my word, I had to figure out what that meant.

I decided it meant researching protesting protocols and knowing my rights – where I could be and should be to avoid problems, how to talk to police who might approach me, and which Constitutional rights protect picketers. I found the *American Civil Liberties Union’s Guide to Demonstrations and Protests * and learned that so long as I was on the sidewalks and caused no disturbance, I had a right to protest; I seemed even more protected as a protester of one if I were picketing. So, I decided I would call myself a picketer if asked. As well, I sent the link to the ACLU guide to the Pullman School District’s twitter account, just in case they needed reminding of citizen’s rights and who is available to defend them when they are violated.

Becoming a picketer meant changing my sign. My first effort commanded readers to opt out of toxic testing, was small and obviously unkempt. While still crowded and messy, my second sign is large, colorful, and more informative than demanding. I hoped to appear less threatening to parents with my second sign, less “anti-testing” and more “pro-parents’ rights.

The degree to which you approve of this
design correlates with how much of it
I'll tell you my kids created. 
To be safe regarding trespassing illegalities, I decided to stand only on sidewalks across the street from area schools rather than on the sidewalks abutting school property. This proved fortuitous on my second day out at another area elementary school when one of Pullman’s Finest, Officer Bedford (a pseudonym), approached me from his patrol car and asked me what I was doing and what my sign was “all about.”

He asked what the SBAC was as well. I informed him about the SBAC and that I was alone and had no sound system or leaflets to pass out but had only my sign, was picketing to draw attention to parents’ rights (sharing a positive message rather than an accusatory one), and was doing so as per my First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights. (I may need to review which Amendments support which rights).  I told him I would stay on the sidewalks and only talk to people who asked me questions. He agreed that was the thing for me to do and asked my name. I offered it, though I didn’t have to (again, I wanted to appear friendly and accommodating) and confidently asked him his. He asked if I wanted a card, and I took one. He then drove away and we were both left having an exceptionally friendly and positive experience. I even tweeted about the kindness of the officer via the Pullman Police Department’s twitter account later that night.

If that seems odd, keep in mind I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be known, and I wanted to be considered a friendly, informative source. The teachers and administrators in those school buildings are not evil, and, as far as I know, not my enemies.

Many most-likely want kids to opt out of testing too and would rather not have to deal with the burden of the abusive standardized testing for they are forced to prepare and administer regardless of their belief systems. Hell, that principal from day one might only have called because a central office member was on hand or to offer evidence to an irate parent that she’d made an effort to talk to the protester even though she despises the state-mandated testing too.

I wanted to seem as though I was fighting their fight too.

I feel it is important to say I was rarely as aware of my privilege as a white person and member of the Pullman community as when Officer Bedford approached me. I smiled, waved, and even walked toward his approaching car when it was clear the officer was coming to check in with me. As well,
Though it hardly seemed invisible as the cruiser approached me.
since the principal from my first day of picketing had mentioned illegal positioning, I assumed I might see a police officer on my second day out. But, my interactions with the local police have been wonderfully positive. So, I walked toward the squad car with confidence and affability. My youngest son’s scout leader is an excellent role model for youngsters and a member of the force, and one day this summer a colleague of his was shopping at a local grocer at the same time as the scout master’s family and my family were shopping, and the scout master’s kids were equally thrilled to see this friend of their father’s and my boys, so the group of us all talked. My boys inquisitively asked this other officer about his gun, and he spent five minutes talking about gun safety, why police wear guns, and how they receive special training to know when and how to use them.

To a small degree, when Officer Bedford approached me, I already felt like I had an “insider” relationship with the local police. “Hey, how’s Officer So-and-so?” or “Do you know Officer This-Guy?” I could have asked.  As well, I was armed with my rights as per the ACLU information. Furthermore, I had and have access to stakeholders and education organizations such that I could share the story of our encounter, as I’m doing now. I knew if I were arrested or even sent away from the picketing site, I’d have a Hell of a story to share with a nationwide audience of bloggers, tweeters, and writers willing to help spread the news of what happened, if not immediately, as soon as I was freed. I did not feel threatened nor did I approach my picketing as someone wanting to appear threatening.

I do not in any way want to suggest that my local police force holds prejudices, but given recent and
The PPD has served me and my family exceptionally well.
ongoing altercations with racial ramifications, I do not know if I would have felt as confident and safe if I were a person of color. To be sure, being a relatively young male, on my own, choosing to spend time with a colorful sign near young kids could be enough to make some suspect (Another good reason to choose high-visibility spots, smile, and wave at parents; indeed, avoiding the children and getting out of their way – even if it means you have to be the one to step closer to the road than they have to so they can pass behind you – is a smart decision), but I felt my whiteness and what it seemed to afford me profoundly.

To that end, I felt the responsibility to share my sense of white privilege with my white sons. After detailing my first day out, they were surprisingly excited. They wanted to join me in protest—er, picketing – and they even helped me make my replacement sign. My wife and I had opted out our oldest from SBAC testing last year, and we plan to do so again this year, and since she is a K12 teacher and I have been a teacher educator with strong opinions on how education reforms are needed but few, if any, of the current spate of reforms change schools for the better (by making them more equitable, friendly, diversity- and culturally-affirming places to learn critically), “education talk” permeates our household. But, my latest actions had opened new possibilities. After their initial excitement wore down, I called my boys to my computer and shared some information from the ACLU guide. I focused on rights and how to act when approached by police. As hard as it was to tell my elementary-aged kids to always keep their hands where officers can see them, do as they request, and do not argue,  among the other advice offered, it felt like a necessity.

My boys began daycare, pre-school, and – for my oldest – formal public education in El Paso, Texas. It is a point of pride between my wife and me that they are comfortable around people of color and make friends with kids of color with ease and without any sense of tension that I might have felt growing up in the 1980s in rural North Carolina. My kids have been the minority population for much of their lives, and their earliest friends constitute a multicultural cast of children. My guess is that they’ll have a diverse friendship for as long as they live, especially considering how often brown-skinned girls seem drawn to them! J (Let a father brag for a moment, will you? My boys got game and don’t even know it. Heck, that’s WHY they got game).

Capitalizing on this possibility, I informed my sons that sometimes police treat brown people differently than they do white people, and this meant that if they are ever hanging out with a diverse group of friends and an officer approaches them, they need to be willing to take the lead in modeling good behavior with the officer because doing so could help them protect themselves and their friends.
Perhaps this sort of active allying constitutes the 21st century version of the “White man’s burden.” Perhaps you are appalled I had this conversation with my sons when they are so young and had positive impressions of the police beforehand. Perhaps my notion of the white males’ modeling “submissive” behavior for their POC friends infuriates you to no end.

I will have to live with my decision to share such information with my young boys, but, at the moment, I wanted them to know why I was doing what I was doing, how I was doing it and how I had informed myself on how to act, and I wanted them to know how to act too. Again, it was just a day later that I was indeed approached by an officer. While I reiterated that the police we know are nice and would never want to harm us, I felt a responsibility to let them know not everyone is afforded such courtesies. To my thinking, they needed to know about their white privilege as a means of protecting themselves but also as a means of protecting their future friends.

I’ll have to wait to see if there is fallout from our  conversation. Or, at least I hope I have to wait. I saw our talk as preluding their teenage years and possible exigencies in which they are with a group of boys who might appear rowdy or suspicious to some. My youngest asked, “But what if the police person is brown too?” I explained that that does not always make a difference in how police sometimes treat citizens of color. I hold on to the belief that his interactions with his scout master and other police officers in the community is enough to keep his trust and faith in them. But, he will not live in Pullman forever, and even if the information I shared jarred him, I hope it sticks with him.

Even if demographic trends evolve such that my sons are no longer the privileged majority when they become teenagers or adults, even if current minority advocacy groups look upon my advice to my sons as more “white savior” racist rhetoric, even if their friends call them pussies or sell-outs for modeling peaceful behavior when it comes to police interactions, I have the feeling that part of white privilege in their near futures means knowing how to work that privilege to the benefit of all people. To be sure, I hope to have worked in that regard by picketing near those schools in the first place.

Most likely, I will not pound the pavement again until testing season draws closer and parents and teachers are seeing clear evidence of the miasma that such testing makes of their schools. Given that the national parent-teacher groups have offered support for Common Core, I may see if I can speak on behalf of United Opt Out at one of their meetings – or at least keep an ear out for any information that suggests there is a movement to convince parents that opting out is detrimental to the school or their children. Given the complexities of opting out at the high school level, I may decide not to picket near the high school.

I end this reflection with one more acknowledgement of my appreciation of our friendly local authorities and with a set of challenges:

1.       If you are a university or college education professor or someone in the Humanities who teaches teaching methods courses, get away from the computer, stop writing your articles and blog entries, and show your support for parents’ rights to opt out by doing exactly as I did: Make a sign and take to the sidewalks. Share and reflect on your experiences as have I.

2.       If you are a parent of kids in state testing grades, opt out and organize with like-minded parents to spread the word about opting out or refusing these tests for your children. See all the kids at your child’s school as your kids, as worthy of protection from abusive testing policies as your birth-children.

3.       Join or educate yourself about organizations like *United Opt Out*, *FairTest*, the *Network for Public Education*, and maybe even the *Badass Teachers Association*. You are not alone. In my current home state of Washington, *nearly 50,000 kids opted out* last year.

4.       If you think there is a better way to talk about white privilege and the responsibilities white people have in using it to the benefit of all people than the approach I took with my sons, let me know kindly and respectfully.

5.       Know that if the current slate of harmful education reforms is to be defeated and we are to pave the way for needed and helpful public education reforms, parents will have to do the heavy lifting.  Professors, principals and teachers may have their hands tied regarding their levels of public advocacy.

6.       Know this, parents: States are required to administer the standardized tests, but it is perfectly legal for them to administer them to empty rooms.