Sunday, June 25, 2006

New Front in the Reading Wars

From Schools Matter

First of all, let me say that I am enthusiastic about science and for what it may yield to educators and policymakers regarding learning and schooling. I use the future tense deliberately here, for as yet science has yielded very little that can be translated from neurology, cognitive science, or even psychology into educational strategies that may be deemed scientific. Education, after all, is a marginal science, if one at all. It occupies a ragged borderland between the social sciences and the humanities, leaving many educationists with an even more pronounced physics envy than the one normally attributed to more respected social scientists.

The phonics phonies and the Crackpots of the Code, on the other hand, have pretended for years that their preferred dogma constitutes a science of reading that must be adhered to for a child to learn to read properly. Their crusade culminated in 2000 when Doug Carnine and Reid Lyon were able to stack the deck of the National Reading Panel to arrive at an ideological conclusion on reading strategy that was promoted as a scientifically-based conclusion. Scientific it was not, but the Panel did prove that when you toss out all the studies that do not support your preconceived conclusions, it is easy to come up with evidence to overwhelmingly support the conclusion you set out to prove in the first place. The NRP may be thought of as the Cheney Method for going to war against the whole language terrorists: manipulate and manufacture evidence to push your agenda, and suppress or marginalize evidence to the contrary.

The fact that legitimate scholars were not duped by Carnine and Lyon has set off a new round of thuggish efforts to force the adoption of the one way “science” of the phonics fundamentalists. This time the masterminds at ED are using Lyon’s fake science to try to bully education schools by threatening the accrediting organizations that determine who gets the stamp of federal approval. And seeing how NCATE has thus far only responded by saying how high when ED says jump, I suggest it is time for an organized response by reading and literacy scholars if the door is to kept open to more legitimate approaches to literacy instruction. If you doubt it, have a look the bottom line message of a report (Full pdf report) sponsored by NCTQ:


So this is what they do at NCTQ with the millions they get handed by ED.

And, of course, a call in to Staples at the NY Times is all that is needed to get Brent bent about the evil racist government schools that refuse to embrace the new scientific ways of reading instruction. Would he be surprised that the claims of this new “scientific” phonics are the same ones made in the 1840s by the Latin Grammar School masters of Boston?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Work with the teachers you have

Is there anyone else who just doesn't understand Kevin Carey's blog entry at the end of last month? It included a reasonable caveat that current research on teacher effectiveness had low R-square figures and high residual variance (i.e., evidence that the model in question accounted for little of the existing variation in student achievement). Then Carey jumped from that to a nullification of research on teachers:
[Sanders' study is part of] the ongoing search for the characteristics of the effective teacher. A definitive list of such characteristics is the holy grail of teacher policy. If we only had that list, so the thinking goes, we could do all kinds of important and useful things. We could reshape education schools to impart those characteristics. We could set up certification systems to filter out teachers who don't have those characteristics. We could design compensation systems that pay teachers with those characteristics more money.... My strong suspicion is that this whole way of thinking will ultimately turn out to be profoundly wrong.... [W]e could double, triple, or magnify tenfold our efforts to refine and expand things like the NBPTS and still never get close to identifying the effective teacher, for the simple reason that she doesn't exist.
That reasoning conflates screening instruments with teacher education and professional development, and it fails to address the fundamental weakness of much of this research, the search for a general qualification of teachers based on a global credential (not usually immutable characteristics). Then Carey went into some weird stuff about Dell's reversal of the usual production-before-sales process. (Never mind that car customers who were willing to wait could custom-order cars years before.) I think it has something to do with being satisfied with identifying effective teachers and not worrying about helping teachers (and prospective teachers) get better. Maybe I'm misreading that entry, but it sure sounded like that.

And, if so, Carey is wrong. Suppose we could identify with 100% accuracy who the good math teachers are. (Incidentally, neither Bill Sanders nor I will ever claim this, regardless of our differences otherwise.) Do we then fire those who are weaker and pray that their replacements are better, on average? As far as I'm aware, there has never been a period of time when you had 100% perfect teachers, when a system didn't need to work with the teachers they had because, well, they were the teachers there at the moment. It makes no sense from a decency, fairness, civil rights, morale, or human resources standpoint to sit there and let an inexperienced, less-skilled, or overwhelmed teacher flounder just because the research on national certification or masters degrees isn't conclusively in favor of those as screening/pay increment policies.

In my own research on special education history, there are several points (including today) when administrators have griped about the lack of trained specialists. The expansion of special education meant that there has always been a shortage of specialists, and often regular teachers were pulled into special education. Lo and behold! these "retreads" (as one former Peabody College professor termed them) were pretty sharp folks and were able to learn new tricks just fine, thank you (again, to the pleasant surprise of my informant). To borrow from a certain Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young classic, if you can't have the ones you want, help the ones you have. They'll probably be just fine.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Hello. I am pleased to accept the invitation to participate.

My name is Kathryn McCormick Benson. I am a graduate of Louisiana State University, 1994, Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. I began teaching at the age of 20 in Jefferson Parish at L.W. Higgins, an all-girls public school on the West Bank. I have taught secondary English and Spanish, off and on, for the past 30 years of so, most of those years in north Louisiana. I began graduate studies at Louisiana State University in Shreveport in 1986, studying with Joe Green and Joe Kincheloe. Thus began my study of the philosophy and history of education. Between completing the Ph D and accepting a position at SAU, I taught English, and sometimes Spanish, in the local high school where I had done the research for my dissertation. I began teaching in the graduate programs at Southern Arkansas University in 2001.

I am quite new to blogging but have enjoyed following the discussions posted so far. I hope that I will have something to contribute; at the least, I will take advantage of the postings and comments. I hope that this experience will not become similar to an early morning van ride to an airport following a curriculum conference in which my co-presenter and I sat silent in the back seat while the two scholars in front of us conducted a quite interesting academic discussion. Upon arriving at the airport, the two exited the van shutting the door behind them. We sat still, silent. What does it mean to be a southern woman in higher education? This is a question which a co-worker at another university and I are contemplating as we think of and research the subtleties and complexities of women, place, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race, and other aspects of our lives that form our consciousness and worlds.

I look forward to participating in the conversations and learning from the back-and-forth comments following the postings – better than footnotes!


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

NCATE Folds on Social Justice

Inside Higher Ed reported June 6 that Arthur Wise, President of NCATE, ended the discussion on the role of social justice in teacher preparation by simply capitulating before the real debate could begin. A case of pure cowardice, neocon hardball politics, or a deadly mixture of both? To commemorate NCATE's shameful acceptance of the racist claim that the goal of social justice is a liberal ideology, I offer this bit of commentary from Schools Matter, 12.15.05:

Protecting the Rights of Racists to Become Teachers

The foundations classes that I teach begin with an introduction to the study of ethics, and one of the texts we use is the NEA Code of Ethics of the Teaching Profession. The Code has this Preamble that we read and discuss:
The educator, believing in the worth and dignity of each human being, recognizes the supreme importance of the pursuit of truth, devotion to excellence, and the nurture of the democratic principles. Essential to these goals is the protection of freedom to learn and to teach and the guarantee of equal educational opportunity for all. The educator accepts the responsibility to adhere to the highest ethical standards.

The educator recognizes the magnitude of the responsibility inherent in the teaching process. The desire for the respect and confidence of one's colleagues, of students, of parents, and of the members of the community provides the incentive to attain and maintain the highest possible degree of ethical conduct. The Code of Ethics of the Education Profession indicates the aspiration of all educators and provides standards by which to judge conduct.

The remedies specified by the NEA and/or its affiliates for the violation of any provision of this Code shall be exclusive and no such provision shall be enforceable in any form other than the one specifically designated by the NEA or its affiliates.

And then it has two Principles, the first one dealing with Commitment to the Student and the second aimed at Commitment to the Profession. Here is the first that become central in a number of hairy cases that constitute the core of the ethics part of the course:
Commitment to the Student
The educator strives to help each student realize his or her potential as a worthy and effective member of society. The educator therefore works to stimulate the spirit of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and the thoughtful formulation of worthy goals.

In fulfillment of the obligation to the student, the educator--

1. Shall not unreasonably restrain the student from independent action in the pursuit of learning.
2. Shall not unreasonably deny the student's access to varying points of view.
3. Shall not deliberately suppress or distort subject matter relevant to the student's progress.
4. Shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning or to health and safety.
5. Shall not intentionally expose the student to embarrassment or disparagement.
6. Shall not on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, national origin, marital status, political or religious beliefs, family, social or cultural background, or sexual orientation, unfairly--
a. Exclude any student from participation in any program
b. Deny benefits to any student
c. Grant any advantage to any student
7. Shall not use professional relationships with students for private advantage.
8. Shall not disclose information about students obtained in the course of professional service unless disclosure serves a compelling professional purpose or is required by law.

Why do I bother to print this part of the NEA Code here? Isn’t it enough that I provide this statement (that I try to live by) as the footing for the ethical foundation that prospective teachers build during my course? It would be enough, perhaps, and not worth posting if there were not now a committed group of right-wing crackpots on the loose who view these ethical values as unimportant for evaluating the readiness of prospective teachers. Yes, these are the same crackpots, now supported by Federal education policy, who would prefer to dismantle, or blow up, teacher education programs entirely.

For those still wondering what I am talking about, there is now emerging (see Chronicle article here) a full-blown neo-con fatwah on education professional schools and the emphasis by these schools on dispositions (ethical values) to which teacher candidates are expected to adhere as they prepare to become teachers.

Particularly loathsome and oppressive to oppressed white protestants (who, we may recall, control both bodies of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court) is the emphasis on values such as “social justice.” It is particularly galling, the tirade goes, to have the liberal university language police who now run schools of education to offer any reminder to teacher candidates that skin tone might carry with it some small social or economic implication, or that there are parts of our national past and present that are not so sunny in terms of the treatment of the darker folk.

In fact, these neo-con critics, in their perennial role as anti-cultural and uni-social nitwits, view the honest treatment of the factual past as a liberal plot to demoralize the white race. What is at stake, of course, is the possibility that teacher candidates actually become conscious of racial history, which might lead some of these, otherwise, color blind co-eds to acknowledge that there are, indeed, parts of their “heritage” that might dampen their unquestioning celebration of white pride. You know, the plantation was not just a place for sipping mint juleps—but, rather, the foundational institution for American economic power in the 19th Century.

As part of my permanent atonement for being a southerner, I watch Jerry Falwell on Sunday morning when I go back home on visits. Falwell is old hand in the school history wars, and recently I heard him share with the TV flock his outrage that school history texts discuss Jefferson’s ownership of slaves. Forever blind to any sense of irony, Falwell would rather see Jefferson remembered, not as a slaveholder, but for his commitment to individual rights, which would seem to include freedom of thought and expression and belief. Except in school, of course, where Falwell and the cons prefer the indoctrination of children in meaningless platitudes intended to blind future citizens to what has made them blind.

What has brought on the current war on “dispositions?” And what are these dispositions?:
In the 2002 edition of its guidebook on professional standards, the [NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education)] detailed the kind of learning it expects, including the kind of professional dispositions it believes students need. Dispositions, the booklet says, are the "values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities." They "are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice."
Dangerous stuff. We know now that the current war on the dangerous value of social justice is part of the much broader intrusion into higher ed that hopes to establish ideological quotas to guarantee the untrammeled presence of the endangered, exploited, and oppressed white male protestant conservative patriotic-by-lapel-pin position in every nook and cranny of the university. If there were any doubt that this is a core unacknowledged reason for Maggie’s new Commission on High Ed, have a look at these remarks by Lamar Alexander, who was purportedly at the Nashville meeting of the Commission to talk about science and math education:
Alexander said funding for colleges is threatened by a "growing political one-sidedness" on many campuses that doesn't allow for more conservative ideas.

"How many conservative speakers are invited to deliver commencement addresses? How many colleges require courses in U.S. history? How many even teach Western Civilization? ... Those are politically unacceptable topics," the Tennessee Republican testified.

Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and former president of the University of Tennessee, said colleges need to bring in more speakers and academics "with a different point of view from the prevailing point of view.

"I know it's the single biggest criticism I hear of higher education, because I'm always the one saying 'Let's have more money for colleges and universities,' " Alexander said. "The biggest thing I get thrown back in my face is, 'They're politically one-sided. Why should I support them?'"

Is the battle against inclusive factual history and social justice dispositions having any effect? Sure enough—in a spineless acquiescence to the anti-political-correctness political correctors, NCATE has quickly folded up on the issue and issued an urgent bulletin. I wonder if this what the NCATE chiefs meant at the Washington meeting that I attended when they talked about plans for closer ties with the federal government?Again, from the Chronicle:
Last month, in the midst of the controversy, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education sent a bulletin to the 614 programs it accredits, saying that education schools should not evaluate students' attitudes, but rather assess their dispositions based on "observable behavior in the classroom." It also said it does "not expect or require institutions to attend to any particular political or social ideologies."

Beliefs, values, philosophy, or ethical commitments don’t matter any more unless we observe them after they are allowed to do damage in the classroom? If a teacher can teach math, it does not matter if she is an avowed skinhead, fascist, or a dangerous liberal? NCATE has, then, just attempted to acknowledge the meaninglessness of a foundational element of what this foundations prof has committed his professional life to. Sorry, NCATE, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but—go the Hell.

By the way, did you ever wonder how it happened in Germany? Perfect example—the whores running higher ed were some of the first to fold.

Jim Horn

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Response on Cynicism


Sorry for the delay in answering, but I was out of town. I define cynicism as having three related components: 1) a dour view of humanity that sees people as competitive and duplicitous by nature 2) given this attitude, a general distrust of other people and particularly (in the neoliberal and neoconservative version) a distrust of government and most social institutions and 3) given these two related beliefs, a lack of faith and hope in the possibility of change. Recent examples of cynicism might be, for example, recognizing that the president lied about Iraq but still wanting to fight the war to feel more safe at home, even knowing that innocent civilians are dying. Or buying an SUV and then pretending to be an environmentalist. Or, for kids, cheating on tests to get better grades even though you know it’s wrong – saying, well everyone else is doing it, including those CEOs I just read about.

In my dissertation I argue that cynicism is distinct from apathy, but that apathy may be a reasonable response to cynicism. If there is a lack of hope in the possibility of change, why not be apathetic to democracy and civic engagement? And if a student feels school isn’t that important to their future business success or, conversely, that the system is stacked against them because of their race or immigrant status, apathy seems like an almost rational response to external forces.

I argue that teachers can combat cynicism mainly through their actions as “public intellectuals” engaging in their communities to enact positive social change. Rather than simply “enlightening” students to all that is wrong with the world, I believe progressive educators must show children that change is possible and that they can engage at the local, state, national and even international level to work toward that change. Many critical pedagogy in action I’ve seen focuses too heavily on critique without any of the empowerment necessary to galvanize children or is too inured to the idea of positive identity formation to create communities of learners and citizens that can work together to improve a society that does not appear to meet their needs. While these ideas might sound idealist, I believe there are places where these teachers and programs exist, and that a little idealism is necessary to combat what I argue is a pervasive cynicism.