Monday, March 9, 2015

Evidence? We don't need no stinking evidence!

(A Facebook friend equates opposition to testing with opposition to Obama's Affordable Care Act. This is my response with input from Brendan Heidenreich)
"Evidence-based decisions" is an odd phrase for a liberal-leaning person to use. It means you willingly accept the instrument used to produce this evidence, for one thing.  Then you choose to accept that evidence, and call it a measure of "achievement." 

It's not legitimate to cite the narrow evidence provided by testing and ignore all the rest, like the daily testimony of thousands of kids kids who tweet the words, "I hate school", and other measures of disengagement and lack of learning in the current system. There are countless examples of young people with interests that are ignored by standardized teaching.

And we might choose to look at the evidence of real accomplishments produced by students in schools where learning is self-directed, such as NorthStar Teens, Open Road, and Sudbury Valley Schools.

You can choose to accept test results as evidence that the children of families living in stressful circumstances are less able to learn. You can believe that the correspondence between poor communities and low test scores means that we have to "teach harder."

Do we need tests to tell us that 75% of the students in RSU 3 are living in some degree of poverty?

I already knew that RSU 3 was poor. I already knew that the students in more middle-class, stable families provided nicer numbers than those living in the instability of poverty. I choose to believe children from such families are equally able to grow intelligence. The problem is poverty, but we as a society have decided to blame the poor for being poor, and teachers for being "unable" to teach them.

What tests bring to the problem seems objective, and our response, being "evidence-based" is to engage in the kind of teaching practices that are geared toward getting a better result. This is called "teaching to the test." It's the only logical, only human way to respond to the evidence.

So for ten years, we have been riding this carousel, and gosh darnit, poor people are still poor and their kids still do badly on tests. And those who support tests will look at this rant and say, "See, liberals don't want to do anything about poor kids!" (see Michelle Rhee

Is testing the only way to find out that kids are poor? And is the only possible response to poverty to be the more forceful pushing of dry, fragmented and tasteless learning tasks, in our panic to show that we're "doing something about poor kids?"

Poverty is by no means the beginning and the end of the problem of testing, but it's one big matzoh ball hanging in the air.

My own administration constantly claims that they most emphatically DO NOT teach to the test. But they do. It's their job. The first question parents still ask when moving to a new area, "what are the test scores of the district?" 

For years during NCLB schools ran scared of the sanctions that would be imposed if they didn't make the annual yearly progress required to be 100% proficient by 2014.

So Maine got a waiver, like other states who were blackmailed into adopting the Common Core, attaching teacher evaluations to test scores (hard cheese if you teach in a poor area) and pass charter school and school choice legislation. Now there are no longer those punishments dangling before us, but we're in the habit of doing what we're told, so we keep teaching to the test. The Governor's Grades, while suspended this year, gave a predictable assessment of how districts are doing, and the Maine DOE still steps in and gives us a whole lot more forms to fill out if we do badly on the test (basically they mandate what "priority schools" must do to get those scores up).

Yes, of course we teach to the test. Just look at the confused faces that look back at me when I say that education needs to be driven by student interests and strengths. WHAT??? What if kids aren't "interested" in learning to read? What if I have to wait on a cashier line and some teenager can't count my right change???? The world is going to hell in a handcart, and you're blowing on the flames!

Of course we teach to the test. We push kids through curriculum aligned to standards and enforced by testing. It's a factory model and what's amazing to me is how long it's been going on, when our only response is to put the hammer down harder on more and more and more learning tasks and churn out more and more disconnected learners.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Parents have the right to opt their children out of high-stakes testing

(The following are my remarks at today's press conference announcing the introduction of LD 695, a bill that would make it easier for parents to keep their children from taking standardized tests in public schools)

Good morning. My name is Lisa Cooley, and I live in Jackson.   I’ve been on the Maine RSU 3 school board for eleven years.  The RSU 3 district covers 11 towns including Thorndike, Unity, Liberty and Brooks. I’m here speaking only for myself.

Everything that we need to do to change public education today, to make it more responsive to our kids, to see them grow as individuals and as connected citizens of today’s world begins with stopping the juggernaut of high-stakes testing and the Common Core.

A healthy learning environment produces students who  will be able to enter the adult world of uncertainty and find a way to thrive, and even make the world a better place. Every single child has that potential. The testing regime has created a toxic learning environment where too many children are left behind, disconnected from learning and ill-prepared for successful lives.

With the advent of standards that are enforced by testing, we’ve embraced a regime that runs counter not only to the way kids learn, but to their happiness and fulfillment. Without that fulfillment, we have buildings full of kids who, from the highest achievers to the strugglers, will do exactly what they are asked to do in order to get adults to leave them alone.

The testing regime has had a particularly negative effect on poor school districts. Poor districts don’t do well on standardized tests, yet we continue to push test-driven curricula. And year after year it continues, while we scratch our heads.

My superintendent, Heather Perry, has said in the Bangor Daily News this week, “Our district is a fairly poor district. We simply don’t do well on standardized tests. But that doesn’t mean you throw the tests out. They are useful tools. They help us understand if the programs are working or not.”

We need to put the billions of dollars we’re spending on testing and standards toward programs that not only improve connection to learning for all students, but alleviate the circumstances of poverty for the kids who are born into it: school-based programs and services that help provide some stability for children whose families are living in stressful circumstances. That, plus the engaged learning that springs from students’ strengths and interests, is the only way, short of ending poverty,  to ensure that all children regardless of income, become well-educated.

When we look at the apathy and disconnection of kids in today’s schools, it’s no wonder why we’re scared of giving them real voice over their learning.  After ten-plus years of high-stakes testing, it’s hard to imagine they will find their innate motivation again. In many cases, it was lost by the time they left middle school.

Everything that we need to do to change public education today begins with ending high-stakes testing. And ending high-stakes testing begins with informing parents of their right to take a stand against it. It doesn’t matter what you believe our ideal schools should look like.  A giant monolith, a partnership of government agencies and corporations, have decided for us that our kids need to be tested, and that these test results will govern what happens in our children’s classrooms.  (I include Maine’s proficiency-based system, since it’s grafted to the Common Core, as being part of the problem, not the solution.)

We must take this opportunity to take a little bit of power over the direction of education. All we are saying is inform parents that they have this little bit of control. Then let them, the government agencies and corporations, make their case to parents themselves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Grades" Wars: Swing...and a miss...strike two

I wrote this comment in response to an article in today's Lewiston Sun-Journal: 

Both traditional grading and standards-based reporting miss the point by about a mile, when it comes to student learning. I know what I'm about to post will be counter to what many of us believe about what schools should do....but face it. Schools are failing.

There are multiple reasons why, and a biggie is just are bored. They are disconnected to learning. They do what they need to do and no more; just what's required to get adults to leave them alone (and if you don't see this as true of our better students, then you've never heard a high-achiever ask, "Will this be on the test?")

Here are some phrases from the article that jumped out at me and waved their arms:

“I’m the parent of an eighth-grader. When he goes next year, I want to know how he’s doing in school. ... We need to do a better job.”
We have accepted the idea that we need a number or a letter to know how our kids are doing in school. Should the question be "how are they doing?" or "how fulfilled and satisfied they are with their learning? Are they doing work that is fun for them to explore? Are they creating cool stuff?"

"For instance, he said, freshmen are no longer graded on homework. Some freshmen have interpreted that to mean they don’t have to do homework. They are now beginning to understand why they need to do their homework, that if they skip homework they won’t do well."
If they skip homework, that means they aren't interested enough in the work to do it. That fact has meaning beyond the archaic notion that one must do homework in order to be successful.

"Parents complained that freshmen grading is so inconsistent, incomplete and confusing that students don’t know where they stand. Some have lost incentive to do well in school."
Their incentive to do well should come from their passions and their interests. We are so divorced from the idea that kids are able to direct their own learning, that we can't imagine what might happen if they were doing work that they felt strongly connected to. We have thrown in the towel on the whole notion of fulfilling, satisfying learning that comes from their identities, their strengths, their enjoyments. And we are unacquainted with the idea that the best preparation for the "outside world" is the development and pursuit of creative ideas.

All grades, standards-based or traditional, derive from adults' ideas on what "should" be learned. We're so confident in our judgment that we don't feel it's necessary to see who the student is, and what they're actually intrinsically interested in learning. It's an idea that never really worked well, and now is positively binding and gagging our students.

Before we "strike out" in our pursuit of "fixing" the education system, we need to look at what nobody in the system seems to want to see -- that in order to "do well" students need to direct their own .learning. Let's get out of the high-stakes testing business, let's reject the Common Core, and embrace -- OH MY GOD! -- the students!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why Eric Jensen is Ruby Payne on Steroids

A Facebook conversation with Paul Gorski and friends...

Facebook not a place for serious discussion? 


Well, it’s a good thing I ignore that on a daily basis -- and so do the other people in this thread which took place over the past few days.

Some weeks ago I wrote a few posts on poverty and education, and Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The approach to disadvantaged students that she recommends and teaches to school districts is based in something those I read and talk to call “deficit ideology.” My own school district, in a laudable attempt to do as well as we possibly can with the disadvantaged students in our schools, has been looking into the recommendations of Ruby Payne.

Curious about two books by Eric Jensen that I saw on a meeting table in front of my Superintendent, I inquired in Paul Gorski’s Facebook group, EdChange. Paul Gorski is the founder of EdChange and the author of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap

Paul Gorski also blogged about the exchange

Lisa Cooley:  Does anyone here have experience with this book?

Paul Gorski answered my question, and reposted his answer in public:

Gorski: Earlier today one of my new favorite colleagues, Lisa Cooley, posted a question, asking people to share their beliefs about Eric Jensen's work on poverty and education. I've posted on this topic in the past, but wanted to share my response for anybody who might have missed it.


Eric Jensen more or less is Ruby Payne on steroids. He uses a very narrowly focused approach to brain research to make claims that fail to take into account the same contextual and social conditions Ruby Payne doesn't take into account in her work. Just to give you a snapshot, here is something Jensen wrote in an article in Ed Leadership:

"We know, for example, that the poor and middle classes have many overlapping values, including valuing education and the importance of hard work (Gorski, 2008). But if poor people were exactly the same cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally as those from the middle class, then the exact same teaching provided to both middle-class students and students from poverty would bring the exact same results." (Note that he cites me here.)

His argument is very Payne-esque, making big statements based on a little sliver of knowledge, completely ignoring structural inequity both in and out of schools. First, he misapplied my argument, which was that there are structural barriers that cause class-based outcome inequalities. (He speaks to some of these in his article, like lack of access to healthy foods, but then fails to say, hey, maybe if we provided low-income kids with healthier foods, that would help.)

Then he takes an even bigger step ignoring structural barriers. It frightens me that anybody who works with youth wouldn't be able to pick up on this pretty quickly. Take two students, one who has lived a life in poverty and one who has been given every material advantage. Even if the student whose family is in poverty has the same innate cognitive and intellectual potential as the wealthy student, why would we expect "the exact same results"?

The lower-income student is more likely to have parents who work multiple jobs and evening jobs, giving them less time to help with homework. They're less likely to have access to nutritious food. They're less likely to have access to tutors and other "shadow education." They're less likely to have stable housing or high-quality health care, particularly preventive health care. Inside school, they're more likely to have had the least experienced teachers. They are more likely to be in schools that are grossly under-resourced. They on average will be in schools with larger class sizes, less engaging pedagogies, and with little or no physical education, recess, the arts, and school nurses.

So, the very notion underlying Jensen's work is 100% wrong. In fact, it's deficit ideology. It ignores the need to address structural conditions--very, very basic structural conditions. The brain research Jensen cites is notable in that it describes what can be the impacts of poverty. So then we need to decide, are we going to focus our energy on mitigating those impacts through a deficit lens that sees low-income students' brains as the problem, or are we going to eliminate the conditions of inequality that creates the impacts? If I'm a teacher, why not focus on creating an equitable learning environment and responding to the unequal distribution of opportunity within my sphere of influence (at the very least) rather than locating the "problem" in the brains of low-income kids?

I think his model allows people to hold onto their deficit views by claiming they're engaging with a scientific explanation, which makes the framework very, very dangerous.

Alejandra Estrada-Burt: I understand why Gorski's is critiquing Jensen's work...but having read his books and listening to Jensen present a few times: I would say that he is overall message to teachers is no excuses ..students from poverty can perform at high levels levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials. In one presentation he cites research on what would happen if you removed the bottom 10 percent of low performing teachers in U.S.the visual graph showed quite a substantial jump in academic proficiency. Look Jensen's an easy guy to critique ...gets paid thousands of dollars to keynote, lives in Hawaii, etc. The cynic in me would also argue that he is the package that delivers a message that will be received by most teachers (please read in between the lines)....the reality is that there is no silver bullet to save schools...just like weight loss ...schools and teachers have to put in the work of collectively raising the bar for themselves and for their students.

Paul C. Gorski: Alejandra Estrada-Burt--Yes, that could be his overall intended message, but it's still grounded in a deficit framework, so it doesn't deal with the biggest ideological barrier.

I actually don't think Jensen is an easy target. After Payne, he's the most popular person doing this work. I have a problem with the fact that the two most visible and active people training teachers on issues of poverty fail to address structural barriers as part of the center of the their frameworks. My concern is with his framework, not with that other stuff.

And really, it's not so much about him or about Payne as individuals. It's about how we, in education, continue to have unsophisticated conversations about equity and justice issues. If we were willing to have more sophisticated conversations about this stuff, Payne wouldn't be dominating the conversation because people would see it as inaccurate and damaging.

And by the way, even though I didn't address the "no excuses" message in Jensen's work, I think that message has done a lot of damage in public education because it's meant to divert attention from the structural barriers that Jensen ignores in his work. Saying that low-income kids don't perform in school as well as their wealthier counterparts because they have crappy healthcare, unstable housing, and fewer material resources is not an excuse. It's a reality. And it's a reality that won't disappear if we cut the 10% of lowest-performing teachers (which is basically still a deficit ideology approach).

Lisa Cooley: I have difficulty with this statement, " I would say that he is overall message to teachers is no excuses ... students from poverty can perform at high levels levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials. "

So what do you do with that no-excuses policy? Teach kids the same special attention to those "struggling learners" who are, usually, poor? That's what we do in my district. But "struggling learner" is just a euphemism for dumb kids, isn't it?

Teach kids from a strengths-based pedagogy; teach them the causes of poverty and the results. Create a democratic school structure where all voices are equal.

Alejandra Estrada-Burt: That is the problem with most Educational speakers and theoretical conversations: which is it does not break it down enough for teachers to answer your question Lisa Cooley...teachers want to know how that plays out in their individual classroom with their theory most educators can accept reframing the conversation from a strength based model...but teachers want support on what they should be doing different. Eric Jensen is one of a few speakers that actually models for teachers strategies and highlights areas where they can better support students in their classroom. I appreciate that he moves beyond the typical sit and get presentations. Jensen is only one perspective but I do believe he helps teachers move along a continuum of a broader understanding toward a more Gorski understanding....but I agree that Jensen does so without calling out the white elephants....

Lisa Cooley: I understand. There's the dichotomy between "what needs to change in society" and "what do I do tomorrow."

Brayatan Carreño: For those of us who grew up in poverty, and I am squarely in that camp. Not only did our teachers ignore the systemic and structural barriers that Paul C. Gorski so aptly points out, but they did so against a backdrop that saw us as not as having less resources but being less worthy. When I taught in the same district I went to school in was the first time I saw how it played out, behind closed doors, the way colleagues, and I only saw it briefly because once I challenged them they simply stopped, talked about children and families. If you don't see yourself and the humanity in those you teach, even recognizing the systemic barriers will do little good because you will have already set yourself up as being different (better) than those you serve. Unlike Paul I am willing to say that I find Jensen and Payne sickening and problematic as humans; that they exploit poverty for their own significant financial gain AND fail to ignore the systemic ways in which poverty operates and how they actively contribute to the exacerbation of punitive teaching lumped on to children historically underrepresented...

Lynda Coates: Hmmm... I read Jensen a few years ago and took away the main message that "If brains can change for the worse because of poverty conditions, they can change for the better in supportive environments." So what educators can do today is focus on creating an enrichment environment instead of focusing on deficits. I am gonna have to review Jensen again after reading your post, Gorski.

Paul C. Gorski: Alejandra Estrada-Burt--Payne and Jensen both talk about practical applications, which is part of their draw. But part of their draw, in my opinion, also is in talking about those practical applications through a framework that doesn't feel threatening--a simplistic framework that doesn't challenge the existing biases of the audience. Now this is where I would separate Payne and Jensen. In Payne's case, the practical strategies are based on misinformation. One study found dozens of factual errors in her work, such as how she describes "language registers" in a way that is completely at odds with decades of linguistics scholarship, or her statement that low-income people don't value education, which I have refuted in my own scholarship.

Jensen does draw on scholarship, although my reading of his work suggests that he applies it quite narrowly, as is the case in the overall "brain research" obsession in education today. Still, he does provide some research-based strategies. But here's the problem that remains, and it goes back to Brayatan Carreño's comment above. The problem is the lack of attention to the structural stuff, which doesn't have to be THE very central message, but does need to be part of the central framework, in my view.

My experience working with teachers--and understand that often I'm the one districts bring in to clean up the bias-laced messes left by Payne and others--is that, without the structural view, many apply the most practical, hands-on strategies discussed by Payne and Jensen within a classroom context that is still full of class bias and misunderstanding.

I'm not talking about bad, aggressively discriminatory teachers here--I'm talking about very well-intentioned teachers who, in the end, still think that poor people are poor because of their own deficiencies (which also remains the dominant view in the US, so it's not unique to teachers, but it is something they probably should not have if they have gone through a decent teacher ed program) and that the way to improve educational outcomes is to fix those deficiencies.

They go through the Jensen workshop and still are talking about how badly low-income people parent or how they wish low-income people care more about school. When I wrote Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, one of my goals was to demonstrate that teachers could enthusiastically have a broader and deeper and more complex conversation. That, if couched in a way that wasn't blaming them and that recognized the challenges they face in their work (and that recognized that teachers, themselves, are targets of a deficit view--blamed, as they are, for all kinds of things that are not really in their control, by among other things the "no excuses" bit), teachers would be very willing to talk about the bigger structural issues.

That's because I simply don't believe it's possible to create real change in even a little context without understanding the bigger conditions. How can I create equitable opportunities for family engagement if I don't realize how the lack of living wage work impacts low-income students and their families?

If I believe they're not showing up because they don't care--if that's my interpretation--then what are the strategies I'm going to be able to imagine for addressing such problems? So having a few practical strategies within a bigger misunderstanding is problematic. It's also inefficient. But most importantly it's oppressive.

In the case of Payne, I think she knows full well she's being oppressive. She's read the responses to her work. She knows by now it's junk. In the case of Jensen, he's applying his narrow bit of expertise to a problem and people are interpreting it as THE WAY to address the problem, either because they don't understand that the problem is much bigger than a lack of practical strategies and the explanation is much bigger than brain stuff OR because it's easier to model a few strategies than to create more substantive and equitable change.

Well, I'm not settling for that. Teachers are capable of doing something more than adding a few strategies to their pedagogies, and it starts with ideological shifts. When the ideology shifts, the practice shifts to be in line with the ideology. That's what I see in schools. And that's where Payne is a complete disaster and Jensen is, at best, underdeveloped.

The quote I shared earlier from his work demonstrates his own lack of understanding. Why would I want somebody who doesn't understand something so fundamental about poverty and how it works training teachers on how to work with students in poverty?

I will add--and I talk about this in my book--that [David] Berliner and some of the other people writing solely about structural stuff and wagging their fingers at people who are doing anything focused more on teaching practice also should be more careful, in my view. To me, it's a both/and, not an either/or., which is why I have ended almost everything I've ever written about these issues with a list of strategies.

One other quick thing, and refer, again to some of Paul Thomas's stuff on this... The other dangerous ideological frame around this conversation is the GRIT stuff, which argues, more or less, that rather than tearing down the barriers of inequity, we should help marginalized youth develop the resiliency and grit to overcome those barriers. That is the worst of deficit ideology.

I actually don't think drawing on brain research is problematic. I just think we need to drawn on a wide swath of research and couch things in a structural understanding. Kind of makes me think of stuff that Ladson-Billings and Delpit have written about helping African American youth strengthen their abilities to navigate racist spaces. The reason they're talking about helping African American youth but are not doing deficit ideology is that they couch their discussions of this in a bigger context of recognizing and addressing structural racism. They're saying, “Until we get this bigger structural racism thing worked out, we better help kids navigate it so they don't get swallowed up, but we also better not come up with these strategies in ways that ignore the existence of structural racism, or they're sure to be swallowed up eventually.”

Lisa Cooley: Paul C. Gorski, I think you are asking people -- teachers, administrators, etc. -- to think more deeply than they might have under the influence of Payne or Jensen. And it may be difficult under the current circumstances of the attack on teachers. As evidenced by the rise of the Badass Teachers Association, teachers are circling the wagons, and with good reason -- the attacks come from every direction. Now, I understand that your approach is NOT in any sense an attack on teachers, but they have to cope with so many trends and fads and practices that are downright antithetical to everything they know about learning -- so they might consider this new approach, while worthwhile, yet another thing they are required to do.

Now, I think there are requirements, and there are requirements, and yours is in quite a different category from, say, the Common Core Standards. But it does require that an entire school staff think more deeply about their place in kids' lives, and how they can adjust the culture of a school to do right be all kids.

Paul C. Gorski: Lisa Cooley--I work with schools all over the country and I get very, very little resistance because my approach begins with an acknowledgement of the challenge educators are up against. Remember, part of my structural message is that teachers, too, are targets of a deficit view. Even as there are some teachers who point the blame to uncaring parents, a lot of people in the US are being socialized to blame teachers for educational outcomes. In the end, my experience has been that educators appreciate being engaged on a deeper level than they are with Payne. My message is not "it's teachers fault." My message is that with some basic shifts in ideology teachers can be even better advocates for their students. My message is that some of those nasty ed reform initiatives are harming teachers, students (and particularly already-marginalized students), families--that the people who feel disempowered by what's happening in education today should be careful not to participate in that divide-and-conquer game of blame each other but instead learn to understand the contextual stuff that makes all of them targets. In the end, teachers' interests are very much aligned with the interests of their most disenfranchised students. In one of the powerpoints I use, my first slide is a photo of my Appalachian grandma who grew up in poverty. The title is "How I know 'the poor' are not 'the problem'". The very next slide is a photo of me with Mr. Hill, the teacher who made me care about these issues. The title is "How I know teachers are an important part of the solution." It's about framing.

Justin Schwamm: Lisa Cooley, I think you're right about the difficulty of asking people, especially teachers and administrators, to think more deeply about structural issues. But I don't think the difficulty is anything new. There's something about the culture and structure of (many) schools that encourages an attitude of "too much to do, not enough time to stop and think, get out of my way, stop bothering me, just close my door and let me teach because this too shall pass." And those cultural and structural elements have been in place for decades.

Lisa Cooley: Another thing I wanted to suggest is that kids are constantly being asked to learn stuff they didn't ask to learn. Obviously there is going to be greater engagement in a classroom that discusses the poverty issue itself, especially if 75% of the kids in the class are poor. But it is still an imposed curriculum, and I trust "learning about" systems less than I do a more immersed learning.

What I'm saying is that a school culture in which everyone's opinion matters equally, from the administrators to the kindergartners -- (yes!) teaches equity by living it. It's the difference between showing and telling. There are an awful lot of things I think should be taught in school and is not touched because of testing and standardization, and certainly the causes of the economic structure of society is one of them, but I think the conditions of learning, the environment and culture of schools, has to undergo a shift in order for the lessons of equity to really be learned.

Of course, it is far easier (not easy, but easier) to institute a curriculum than it is to turn public schools into democratic schools, but I think we have to keep the end goal in mind as the way of healing the wounds that poor kids suffer in and out of schools, and turning them into confident, empathetic, self-respecting adults.

There are a few things that I believe might be done to create this culture of equity; one of them derives from the work of Nel Noddings, who talks about the difference between "caring about" and "caring for." This applies to all students -- "caring about" is a more distant kind of caring, but "caring for" means that there is a focus among staff to make sure all kids' needs are met, educationally, emotionally, socially, etc. Making sure there is a level playing field between kids and adults is part of the strategy. Chris Lehmann works hard to see this happens at the Science Leadership Academy (Chris, I wouldn't pull you in here if it wasn't winter vacation! )

The other thing as I've mentioned to you is a strengths-based pedagogy. If we assume all kids have strengths -- and how could they not? -- then poor and middle-class kids are equal. So we start there. Find the strengths, find the interests, and give all kids equal opportunities to not only learn what they are interested in but show that they are good at stuff. I read once that one kid in an inner-city school said he was very good at walking home from school without getting shot. His strengths were in knowing his neighborhood really well including helpful alleyways, but also in understanding the mood of a neighborhood and being able to tell if there was trouble. These strengths could be taught by him, and also applied to other learning. Other kids won't be good at what he's good at, so he gets to feel pretty special, as do all the other kids in their own way.

Then, from a different thread...

Lisa Cooley: To quote Paul in an earlier exchange, "My experience working with teachers--and understand that often I'm the one districts bring in to clean up the bias-laced messes left by Payne and others..."

Paul C. Gorski, could you describe some of the "messes" that Payne leaves behind? How did they manifest themselves, and what did you do to clean it up? Thanks! (I'm taking advantage of people being on vacation to gain as much info as I can!)

Paul C. Gorski: Mostly it's just a confirmation of deficit views, but it comes through as teachers speaking very confidently about poverty, not realizing how misinformed they've been by Payne. It's all the basic stereotypes. They don't care about education. They speak in informal register. They struggle to communicate effectively. It's all about what they need to understand about what's broken in low-income families, although they'd never use the word "broken" because that would be too explicitly biased.

Go back to the example of family involvement. I've worked with schools where, based on Payne's message, the primary strategy for increasing family involvement was to find ways to convince low-income families they should care more about their children's education.

Well, we know based on about 45 years of research that low-income families have the exact same attitudes about the importance of education as their wealthier peers--that that's not why they show up in lower numbers to family engagement things hosted at the school. So now they're using strategies that are actually further alienating low-income families rather than asking themselves whether they family engagement opportunities they provide are scheduled in ways that make sense for families who can't afford childcare, who don't have transportation, who don't have paid leave and are more likely to be working evening jobs, who experience schools as hostile. It's not mean-spirited usually.

It's very well-intended--enthusiastic, even. Most see themselves as real advocates. So my approach is about having them look through a different window, from a different angle, incorporating a more structural view so that they can imagine more sensible solutions. The mess is the more deeply embedded stereotypes (which Payne has confirmed for them) and the practices and policies and initiatives developed through those stereotypes.

Then I'm coming in and saying, "Oops--this isn't going to work unless we're willing to change the way we think about poverty." And despite what people might assume, my experience has been that, as long as I engage educators in a respectful process of digging through the muck--a process that does not blame educators, a process that wraps back around to classroom practice eventually--I get very, very little resistance.

And I don't candy-coat. I say up-front, "If you believe that people in poverty are in poverty because people in poverty are deficient, you cannot be an effective educator for low-income students." That's my first message. My second message is that this is 90% ideological, and part of our shift has to be thinking that every educational problem is 90% practical.

Lisa Cooley: Interesting, thank you! it's kind of amazing that administrators see the damage that has been done and bring you in to fix it.

Paul C. Gorski: Lisa Cooley--Yes. In those cases it is pretty amazing. Other times what happens is they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Payne's stuff and five years in they realize nothing has changed so they decide to try something different...

Lisa Cooley: Oh, yeah, and I bet you have the "sunk costs" phenomenon there as well...we paid X dollars for Payne's people to come in here and teach us, nothing has changed, so now we have to pay X more to reinforce it because we don't want to admit that we were mistaken to let her run the process of making change to begin with.

I’ll let Paul sum up....

Paul C. Gorski: The issue is not who values education. Virtually everybody values education, and we have research going back to the mid-70s that makes that very clear. The issue is who has ACCESS to equitable educational opportunity. And this is what I've been saying about IDEOLOGY, why it's so important. If I start by believing that poverty is actually a symptom of deficiencies in people or communities, I am very likely to interpret the symptoms of unequal opportunity--low-income parents showing up to school-based opportunities for family engagement at lower rates than their wealthier peers--as evidence supporting my deficit view. And it's wrong. In every single way it's wrong.

Sure there are individual people who might not value education in whatever way, but those people are not concentrated in low-income communities (or in communities of color, which also is a common assumption). This works in other ways, too. A low-income student consistently doesn't do her homework. How do I interpret it? A low-income student falls asleep in class. How do I interpret it? Do I consider that they might not have computers or access to a library? Do I consider they are more likely to be caring for younger siblings? Do I consider they are more likely to be working to help support the family? Do I consider they might be homeless or have had the lights cut off? If I have the deficit view, I'm not likely even to be curious about these things.

If I have the structural view, even though I might not be able to change these things for the student, I at least will not start with the assumption that the student is irresponsible and that the parents don't value education. I won't respond in a way that further alienates my most marginalized students. And I can come up with strategies that at least take the reality of the situation into account rather than strategies that begin with faulty assumptions. Ideology = practicality.

I think it might be possible to successfully work Facebook as an activist, as a way of both gathering information and raising awareness about the changes that are needed in education.

A friend recently told me it might be productive to offer these discussions up to a larger audience. If anyone would like to participate in these discussions, be sure to send me a friend request. I’ll return it for anyone who demonstrates a genuine interest in making public education work for all of America’s children.