America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

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One of the founding principles of the United States is public education.

 

We fought a bloody revolution against England for many reasons, but chief among them was to create a society where all people could be educated.

 

Certainly we had disagreements about who counted as a person. Women? Probably not. Black people? Doubtful. But the ideal of providing a quality education for all was a central part of our fledgling Democracy regardless of how well we actually lived up to it.

 

In fact, without it, our system of self-government just wouldn’t work. A functioning Democracy, it was thought, couldn’t exist in a nation where the common person was ignorant. We needed everyone to be knowledgeable and enlightened.

 

That’s why we have public schools – so that an educated citizenry will lead to a good government.

 

Our founders didn’t want a system of private schools each teaching students various things about the world coloring their minds with religious dogma. They didn’t want a system of schools run like businesses that were only concerned with pumping out students to be good cogs in the machinery of the marketplace.

 

No. They wanted one public system created for the good of all, paid for at public expense, and democratically governed by the taxpayers, themselves.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Just look at what the founders, themselves, had to say about it.

 

More than any other fathers of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson preached the Gospel of education and its necessity for free governance.

 

As he wrote in a letter to Dr. Price (1789), “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

 

He expanded on it in a letter to C. Yancy (1816), “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

James Madison agreed. As the author of the Second Amendment, he is often credited with giving gun rights primary importance. However, he clearly thought education similarly indispensable. In a letter to W. T. Barry (1822), he wrote:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

Our first President, George Washington, saw this to mean that the goal of education should be knowledge of good government. He wrote in Maxims (1854):

“And a primary object of such an Institution [Public Education], should be the education of our youth in the SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT. In a Republic what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty is more pressing on its legislature, than to patronize a plan, for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

 

For his part, Jefferson had even more egalitarian ends in mind. For him, the most important aspect of public schooling was that it should be open to all social strata of society.

 

He wrote in his response to the American Philosophical Society, (1808), “I feel … an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”

 

In short, Jefferson envisioned a public school system that educated everyone regardless of social class or wealth.

 

This is very different from 18th Century education in the United Kingdom. Rich children went to grammar schools with vastly different curriculums for boys and girls. But the poor were left to their own devices. Though many English towns had established charity schools – sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of children’s uniforms – there was no general law guaranteeing an education to the poor. Moreover, most schools included religious instruction, usually that of the Church of England. Children who belonged to other denominations often went to their own academies. In many cases, a formal education was eschewed altogether in favor of a 7-year apprenticeship for a trade or working at home.

So what Jefferson and others were proposing – free, secular education for all – was revolutionary.

 

Moreover, it would be essentially public, not private. Jefferson’s immediate predecessor as President, John Adams, famously said in Defense of Constitutions (1787):

 

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

 

 

The result of such a national commitment to public education was immediately felt. Schools were built quickly throughout the country but especially in the more urban North. By 1800, the literacy rate exceeded 90 percent in some regions – extraordinary for the time period.

 

Data from indentured servant contracts of German immigrant children in Pennsylvania show that the number of children receiving an education increased from 33.3% in 1771–1773 to 69% in 1787–1804.

 

 

By 1900, there were 34 states with compulsory schooling laws; four of which were in the South. Thirty of those states even required attendance until age 14 or higher. As a result, by 1910, a full 72 percent of American children attended school. By 1918, every state required students to complete at least elementary school.

 

 

And these schools became increasingly public. Though the Colonial period was marked by more private schools than public, by the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. This was just as Jefferson had foreseen.

 

He believed there was a place for private enterprise, but education wasn’t it. In his sixth Annual Message (1806) as President, Jefferson wrote:

 

“Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”

 

In other words, Jefferson saw room for some aspects of schooling to be private such as selling books, supplies, etc. Some things are accomplished better by private enterprise, but not all. Only the “ordinary branches” of schooling can be best served by “private enterprise.” The roots of the tree, however, must be public. It just makes sense, after all. You wouldn’t run a business like a school. Why would you want to run a school like a business?

 

He stressed that only an institution focused on the public good, only a public school system, can provide the best education. And he again stressed its necessity for the health of the entire country.

 

In Notes on Virginia (1782), Jefferson wrote:

 

“An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.”

 

Truly, the founders saw public education as a way of stopping their new nation from becoming as corrupt as England. By spreading the vote to more people, it was necessary to increase the education of the citizenry. That way, it would be difficult for special interests to sway the government unless what they were proposing was for the good of all.

 

Chief among the corrupting influences of English education was religion. It wasn’t that our founders were irreligious. They were skeptical of dogma, of the close relationship between church and state in the United Kingdom and how the one was used to enforce the other.

 

As Madison wrote in a letter to Edward Livingston (1822), “Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

 

Jefferson made this clear in his letter to Thomas Cooper (1822):

 

“After stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences… And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

 

In other words, Jefferson desired those interested in religious matters to broaden their knowledge beyond their own belief system. It was essential that American minds were not closed by strict canonical religious instruction. He saw this as necessary to the exercise of free government.

 

One can only imagine at what horror he would regard the modern voucher system, where tax dollars are used to fund parochial schools teaching just this same primacy of doctrine in the formation of students’ worldviews. He wanted Americans with open minds full of competing ideas, not mentalities instructed in the one “right” way to act and think.

 

And the cost of providing such an education – though considerable – was worth it.

 

Ben Franklin (as later quoted in Exercises in English Grammar (1909) by M. A. Morse) allegedly said:

“If a man empties his purse into his head no man can take it from him. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

 

Adams concurred in his 1776 Papers:

 

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

 

And Jefferson in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell (1816) wrote, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

 

Moreover, as a man of wealth, himself, Jefferson had no problem bearing the burden of the cost of a robust public school system. In his Autobiography (1821), he wrote, “The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor.”

 

How far we have strayed from these ideals.

 

Our current policymakers are doing just the opposite of the founders. They skimp on education, slashing budgets especially for the poor. They seem to champion both private schools and ignorance. Education is not a necessary public good – it is something to be hidden and kept away from the masses.

 

Today’s policymakers and politicians seem to actually want voters to be uninformed so they’ll vote for ignorant lawmakers and bad policies. They’ll vote against their own interests.

 

This goes against everything our founders stood for. It is counter to the ideals of the American Revolution. It is un-American.

 

There is nothing more representative of the ideals of our nation than the public school system. And anyone who attacks it attacks the heart of the nation.

Civil Rights Aren’t Just for Minorities – They’re For Everyone

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

It’s still shocking to me that so many white people seem to think civil rights are just a black issue.

 

As if they’re something that only concerns people of color.

 

White people can’t be the victims of discrimination? We can’t be mistreated on the basis of gender, religion, sexuality, or age?

 

Of course we can! And many of us are. But we are rarely discriminated against on the basis of our race. And somehow accepting that fact seems to turn us against the very idea of civil rights.

 

We act as if talking about civil rights is code for black issues. Many of us refuse to even admit that black people have legitimate grievances in this area, that they’re just needlessly complaining and looking for sympathy, that they’re trying to get something for free or get one over on us.

 

It’s pure bullshit. Black people are authentically aggrieved. They are the victims of a systemic racism that rarely even becomes visible to white eyes. And that same system either ignores whiteness or even privileges it.

 

The criminal justice system, alone, is rife with examples including racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policies, police brutality and the failed War on Drugs. Add to that voter ID laws, redlining, and credit scores. Add to that the use of bigoted and prejudiced textbooks, punishing non-white students more harshly than white students, underfunding public schools, and closing them down if they’re attended mostly by students of color.

 

Yet that doesn’t mean white people are impervious to civil rights violations. It just means that people of color are targeted much more often and are in much greater need of help than we are.

 

Yet many of us refuse to admit it. We refuse even though doing so actually puts ourselves at greater risk.

 

Think about it. If we ignore the civil rights concerns of those most victimized, who will be there for us when we’re targeted?

 

Take police brutality.

According to the Guardian’s The Counted, 1,092 Americans were killed by police in 2016. If we look at it proportionately, a much higher percentage of minorities were killed than white people. Specifically, Native Americans were killed at 10.13 per million, black people at 6.66 per million, while Hispanics and Latinos were killed at 3.23 per million. By comparison, white people were only killed at 2.9 per million.

 

So minorities were killed at much higher rates than whites given their smaller percentages of the population. However, if we look at the raw numbers, more white people were killed than any other group. Specifically, the police killed 574 whites, 266 blacks, 183 Hispanics/Latinos and 24 Native Americans.

 

So, yes, the African American community is right to be angry that they’re being disproportionately targeted by police. However, more than 500 white people were killed by law enforcement, too. That’s a troubling figure all by itself. Why are American police killing so many of us? Why is law enforcement so trigger happy in the USA?

 

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years. Yet very few police officers actually serve jail time. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but only a handful were convicted.

 

This is a real problem, yet many white people dismiss it as a black issue – and an illegitimate one at that. As a country, we have a real concern with the way police are trained, protocol for when deadly force is allowed and how officers are held accountable. But we’re letting this issue fall through the cracks because it’s being delegitimized as a “mere” civil rights complaint.

 

Things have really changed in this country.

 

In 1963, when the all black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, the entire society took notice. Even whites who had been unsympathetic to the civil rights struggles of African Americans up to this point were disturbed at the murder of four children and the injury of 22 others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” and it marked a turning point in our history. The fight for civil rights became a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, American struggle to secure equality for our brother and sister African Americans.

 

However, just two years ago when Dylann Roof was inspired by white supremacist Websites to kill nine people at all black Charleston Church in South Carolina, the response was… meh. Though it has been categorized as a hate crime, it has done nothing to wake up the society at large to the realities of modern day American racism. At most, it’s dismissed as an isolated event.

 

However, it’s not. White supremacists have long targeted African American churches as objects of their hatred. In 1991 it took a series of 154 suspicious church burnings for Congress five year later to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its “racial or ethnic character.” More recently, a black church in Massachusetts was burned down the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

 

For some reason, these continuing hate crimes fail to rouse the public at large. Perhaps the Internet culture and the perpetuation of so-called news sources that only support partisan confirmation bias has something to do with it. But it’s harmful to all of us.

 

When white people ignore the legitimate claims of black people, they make it easier for everyone to be mistreated. Often white people have acted as if prejudice could never be perpetrated against them, and when it’s cropped up, we’ve defined it narrowly to fit only the immediate group targeted. That’s an LGBT issue. That’s a Jewish issue. That’s an issue for people with disabilities. We rarely see them as they are – human issues.

 

In the age of Trump, violations of individual rights are popping up every day: journalists receiving felony charges for covering unrest at the inauguration, a Louisiana bill that makes resisting arrest a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison, proposed laws in 10 states to criminalize peaceful protects – and on and on.

 

Nor is it partisan. Here are a list of human rights violations under Obama: drone strikes outside active war zones, ongoing use of massive civilian surveillance programs, failure to close Guantanamo Bay, harsh penalties for whistle blowers and no accountability for those they expose.

 

We live in an age where our rights are being eroded by ignorance, indifference, and the uncritical acceptance of prepacked political narratives. The powers that be use racism and prejudice to keep us divided so we’ll never mount an effective opposition.

 

Today as ever we need each other. We need to be there for our brothers and sisters in humanity. That starts with white people waking up to the harsh realities of black life in America.

Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year

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Is it just me or did 2016 really stink?

Both personally and publicly, it was a year I’d rather not revisit. I lost family. I lost idols (RIP, David Bowie and Prince). And we lost a horrible, protracted Presidential election.

But as has become a tradition, I find myself in front of the computer compelled to compile this list of the best of my own writings.

It would be easy to just say nothing much of value happened in 2016 so let’s just move on. But that wouldn’t be true.

There were good things. I’m just stumped to remember many of them right now. Perhaps as time goes on we’ll look back fondly on a smattering of events from this year that was. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was kinda cool. There were some decent movies and a heck of a lot of good TV shows. The Arrival, Star Trek Beyond, Deadpool… Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, two excellent series about O. J. Simpson. We got a Harry Potter sequel of sorts – and another movie! I thought “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters was quite good. We got an amazing musical in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Technically it opened in 2015, but it swept the Tonys this year. And hey! We stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline – for now.

It was certainly a productive year for blogging.

There was so much to write about.

This little education and civil rights blog went into overtime. I almost doubled traffic to the Website and got 2,145 more followers for a total of 11,335.

Gadflyonthewallblog, or if you prefer Gadfly on the Wall Blog, has been going strong since July 2014. In those two and a half years, I’ve gotten 849,000 hits – 363,000 just this year, alone. I also increased the number of posts I write a year. Last year, I only managed about 90 posts. This year it was 120 posts – a full 30 additional articles.

I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I hope you’ve found them valuable.

Sometimes readers send me a note saying that they’re going to share this post or that post with their school board or their representative in the House or Senate. I’m always very flattered to hear that something I wrote is helping someone else fight for what’s right. Of course, I do get a lot of hate mail, too. No death threats yet, but it’s getting awfully close. Readers have wished I was dead, but no one has offered to give me that little push to the other side.

I hope that no matter what your reaction, you’ll remember these are just the writings of a humble public school teacher and father. No one pays me, though sometimes I do get donations for the right to reprint something elsewhere. I write all this stuff because I have to. So few people seem to care what people like me have to say – even in my own profession. Like many others, I’ve stopped waiting to be asked.

So for your end of the year amusement, I offer this top ten list of my most popular writing from 2016. And here’s to a better 2017.


10) F is for Friedrichs… and Freeloader: A Supreme Court NightmareScreen shot 2016-01-11 at 9.50.07 PM

Published: January

Views: 5,550

Description: Some crazy lady didn’t want to pay the union for benefits that she got as a member and didn’t want to give them up. And rich folks everywhere had her back. They slobbered all over and pushed forward a bull crap case through the Supreme Court that probably would have made it much more difficult for labor unions everywhere had not Justice Antonin Scalia died deadlocking the vote. This article was my attempt to show how absolutely absurd the argument was against being forced to pay for something that benefits you.

Fun Fact: Now that Congress blocked President Obama’s Constitutional right to appoint a replacement for Scalia, and Donald Trump will probably get to pick a replacement, look for a similar case to come down the pike and win! Oh, 2016, will you ever truly leave?


9) The Charter School Swindle – Selling Segregation to Blacks and LatinosScreen Shot 2016-05-31 at 4.22.46 PM

Published: June

Views: 6,489

Description: Charter school promoters often sell these institutions to minorities as being “Separate but Equal.” Hm. Didn’t Brown v. Board outlaw that kind of practice because if schools were separate, they usually were anything but equal? This article is my attempt to explain how charter marketers are really selling minorities on segregation and trying to talk them out of their own civil rights.

Fun Fact: During the Obama years, it was common practice to sell corporate education reform as a way of increasing civil rights while it actually violated them. It will be interesting to see if that rhetoric gets left behind in the Trump years when lawmakers already seem to have little interest in them at all.


8) ‘We’re Sorry Teachers are Unfairly Blamed’ says John King – Man Responsible for Unfairly Blaming Teachers

Published: February John King AP

Views: 6,832

Description: When John King became temporary Secretary of Education, he went on an apology tour telling educators that the federal government was sorry for how terribly it had treated teachers. In particular, he was sorry the department had blamed educators for societal problems that our schools need to fix without giving them the resources necessary to actually correct them. However, King was personally guilty of many of these same practices in his old job in New York. It was typical disingenuousness from the Obama administration and the Democrats – ignore and abuse their key constituents until election time and then make positive noises in their general direction hoping we’d support them at the polls.

Fun Fact: It didn’t work.


7) Bernie Sanders is Right: We Should Federalize Public School FundingBernie_Sanders_by_Gage_Skidmore

Published: January

Views: 6,947

Description: The way we fund public schools in this country is messed up. In many states, we rely heavily on local property taxes which result in poor communities being substantially underfunded and rich ones having more than enough of everything. In most of the world, funding is done much differently – the burden is handled mostly by the federal government who then distributes it equitably from place-to-place. Bernie Sanders proved he was the real deal by suggesting we do the same thing here in the US, a suggestion that no one in either party was ready for.

Fun Fact: Even some of my readers were uncomfortable with this one. They feared that if the federal government took responsibility for funding, it would increase their ability to micromanage local school districts. This is a fair concern, but there is a way to do this without increasing federal control of education policy, just funding. In any case, funding disparity is an issue that hardly ever even gets acknowledged less than discussed. Thank you, Bernie!


6) Summer Break – the Least Understood and Most Maligned Aspect of a Teacher’s Life

Published: June Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 4.18.07 PM

Views: 7,429

Description: Just about every teacher gets crap from non-educators about summer break. Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a teacher and how easy we’ve got it. This post was my way of shutting up the ignorant. It explains why educators aren’t teaching in summer, what they’re actually doing and how the public benefits from giving teachers this time. Share it with someone you love.

Fun Fact: Or just shut someone up with it.


5) Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Manager is a Longtime Corporate Education Reformer

Clinton Gives Speech On American Global Leadership At Washington Conference

Published: March

Views: 9,268

Description: Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, is not a nice man. I unearthed a speech he gave to corporate school reformers including Jeb Bush in 2012 where he pledges his allegiance to conservative, market-driven school policies. And THIS is the guy who was influencing Hillary’s approach just like he influenced Obama’s when he worked on that campaign. Legend has it, Podesta is responsible for giving us Arne Duncan. He suggested Duncan over Obama’s campaign education advisor Linda Darling Hammond, a critic of high stakes testing. These were truths that needed to be told and tell them I did.

Fun Fact: That this came out was a huge embarrassment to the Clinton campaign. All they could do was suppress it. Even dedicated supporters who read the article had to admit that she would probably not be very good for education – but she’d be better than Trump. It’s these kinds of Faustian bargains that derailed her campaign. How much better off we would have been had we had a real progressive to vote for than just another Democrat in Name Only!


4) What Antonin Scalia’s Death Means to the People I Loveantonin-scalia-26

Published: February

Views: 14,001

Description: Scalia was a terrible Supreme Court judge who used his position to justify hurting a lot of people. While others tried to hide their excitement at his passing, I let mine show. It might not be nice to say, but the world is a better place without him in it. I had hoped my honesty would make it harder for anyone like him to ever reach that office again. Unfortunately, weak Democrats and an incoming Republican President mean his replacement will probably be just as bad as he was.

Fun Fact: Originally my title was much more provocative – something like “Antonin Scalia was a Terrible Person and I’m Glad He is Dead.” It got over 10,000 hits in a few hours, but then I reconsidered and changed the title. People almost immediately stopped reading it.


3) Without Black Culture There Would Be No American CultureScreen shot 2016-06-28 at 12.10.37 AM

Published: June

Views: 15,519

Description: We often talk about black people as victims. Police brutality, civil rights violations, economic disparities – but this is only half of the story. There is a buried history of success that rarely gets mentioned. Think of what American culture would look like without black people. It would be something completely different. This was my attempt to tip my hat at the incredible ways black Americans have made their mark on our society especially in the field of music.

Fun Fact: Black Twitter really liked this article. It was especially gratifying to see how appreciative people were. Of course, at the same time, some folks’ white fragility couldn’t handle it, either. Some readers tried to bully me into making changes here or there for no reason other than that it made black people look too good. Sorry, folks, no one determines what I put on this blog but me.


2) The Essential Selfishness of School Choice

Published: November img_5992

Views: 40,268

Description: School choice is less an education policy than a propaganda effort. Most people don’t understand what it really is. They don’t understand how essentially selfish it is like cutting a piece of pie from the middle of the dish so no one else can get a whole slice. I tried here in the most simple, direct language I could to explain why.

Fun Fact: With the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary and Trumps’ promise to spread school choice across the land like a Trump University franchise, the article remains popular. A lot of readers told me that it helped make sense of the issue for them for the first time. No doubt it’s been sent to policymakers across the nation. And it all started when I saw that picture of a ruined pumpkin pie on Reddit. I started to think – isn’t that a lot like school choice?


1) Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice

Published: JanuaryLittleKidThumbsDown

Views: 77,139

Description: Both Democrats and Republicans love school choice. So I thought that real education advocates needed a quick list of the main reasons why it is bad policy. There’s nothing really new or amazing here. We’ve known this for decades, but this keeps getting brought up again and again like zombie legislation. The wealthy will push this forward whether we want it or not. There’s just too much money they can make if it passes. That’s why it’s good to know why what they’re peddling is so harmful to students, parents and communities. Consider it ammunition for quick come backs.

Fun Fact: I wrote this long before the Trump administration was a prospect to be taken seriously. This was long before DeVos or the Donald pledged to bring this to the national stage. It has continuously gotten a steady flow of hits since it was published. If my goal as a blogger is to be useful, I think this post more than any other written this year fits the bill. You can quibble with one or two points here, but all ten are enough to show any rational person why school choice is no choice.

Standardizing Whiteness: the Essential Racism of Standardized Testing

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“As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.”
-Andrew Hartman

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
-Toni Morrison

We talk about standardized testing as if we don’t really understand what it is.

We say we want No child left behind!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures some students MUST be left behind.

We say we want Every student to succeed!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures every student will NOT succeed.

It would be absurd if not for the millions of children being forced to endure the harsh reality behind our pretty words.

It’s not these ideals that are the problem. It’s standardized testing.

Researchers, statisticians, and academics of every stripe have called for an end to high stakes testing in education policy. Parents, students and teachers have written letters, testified before congressional committees, protested in the streets, even refused to take or give the tests. All to deaf ears.

The federal government still requires all students in 3-8th grade and once in high school to take standardized tests.

But these assessments are graded on a curve. A certain amount of students are at the bottom, a certain amount are at the top, and most are clustered in the middle. This would be true if you were testing all geniuses or all people with traumatic brain injuries.

It doesn’t matter how smart your test takers are. There will always be this bell curve distribution. That’s how the tests are designed. So to talk about raising test scores is nonsensical. You can raise scores at school A or School B, but the total set of all test takers will always be the same. And some students will always fail.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Standardization, itself, has certain consequences. We seem to have forgotten what the term even means. It’s defined as the act of evaluating someone or something by reference to a standard.

This socket wrench is a good socket wrench because it most closely resembles some ideal socket wrench. This McDonald’s Big Mac is good because it resembles the ideal McDonald’s Big Mac.

That’s what we’re doing to people – children in fact. We’re evaluating them based on their resemblance to some ideal definition of what a child should know and what a child should be.

But children are not socket wrenches nor are they Big Macs. It is not so easy to reduce them to their component parts and say this is good and that is bad.

When you try to abstract them to that point, it is impossible to remove various essential factors of their identity – race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Nor would it be admirable if you could, because you would have abstracted to the point where the individual is no longer visible or valued. A child raised in poverty is simply not the same as a child from a privileged upbringing. A child from a culture that values cooperation is not the same as a child from a culture that values individual achievement. And that’s often a good thing.

But when you define a standard, an ideal, you make certain choices – you privilege some attributes and denigrate others. Since the people creating the tests are almost exclusively upper middle class white people, it should come as no surprise that that is the measure by which they assess success.

Is it any wonder then that poor kids and children of color don’t score as well on these tests? Is it any wonder that upper middle class white kids score so well?

We’ve known this for almost a century. Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing intelligence or knowledge. Those things are too complex and the tests are too simple. If you’re evaluating something equally simple like basic addition and subtraction, these tests can work alright. But if you’re trying to get at something complex like critical thinking or creativity, they end up doing little more than prizing the way some people think and not others. In short, they elevate the thought processes most associated with rich white kids.

It doesn’t mean poor and/or black children are any less intelligent. It just means rich white kids have the things for which the test designers are looking. Some of this is due to economic factors like greater access to private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused. However, a large portion is due to the very act of taking tests that are created to reflect white upper class values and norms.

Think about it. Almost all the questions are field tested before they become a permanent part of the exam. Students are given a question that doesn’t count to their final score, but test makers tabulate how many kids get it right or wrong. So when most white kids answer a field tested question correctly and most black kids get it wrong, it still becomes a permanent test question because there are so few blacks relative to whites. Maybe it’s a question that references sun tan lotion, something with which darker skinned people don’t have as much experience. Imagine if a question referencing the hair care practices of  black people became a test item. White people would have difficulty with it because they can’t easily relate. But the field testing process doesn’t allow that because it normalizes whiteness.

So black kids stumble while white kids have an easier time. We even have a name for it: the racial proficiency gap.

Many well-intentioned progressive voices have bemoaned this problem and wondered how to solve it. But it’s not the scores that are the problem. It’s the assessments. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

That’s right. You cannot have such obvious, historical problems perpetuated year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and still think they are mere unintended consequences.

This is how the system was designed to work. This is how it’s always been designed to work.

If you were going to create a racist and classist school system from scratch, what would you do? How would you go about it?

You’d need the lower classes to have SOME mediocre education so they are able to do the menial work that keeps society running. But only so much. Education as a social ladder is all well and good as propaganda. But you don’t want that ladder to lead out of the basement for more than a few.

You need something that will create a hierarchy with people of color at the bottom and poor whites only slightly better off so they can feel ennobled compared to their darker subordinates.

You need a biased sorting mechanism – something that allows you to put students into privileged and unprivileged categories but that will look to all the world like it was doing so fairly. It would have to appear like you were choosing students based on merit.

You’d need something like standardized test scores.

This is how these assessments have functioned from their very beginnings.

When Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes, U.S. Army psychologists during WWI, designed the alpha and beta intelligence tests to determine which soldiers deserved to be officers, they were creating a pseudoscientific justification for white privilege. They used biased and unfair assessments to “prove” that rich white folks were best suited to give orders, and the rest of us belonged in the trenches.

Brigham and Yerkes were drawing upon eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” or “scientific racism.” This was a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Eugenicists thought positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed,” wrote Yerkes.

THIS is the basis of standardized testing.

After the war, Brigham took the same principles to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T. – in principle the same exam still taken by 2.1 million teenagers every year to ensure they get into their chosen college.

The test was further refined by fellow eugenicist Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Together these three men created the foundations for the modern field of standardized testing. And make no mistake – its axiomatic principle is still that some races are genetically superior and others are inferior.

Or as Terman put it:

“A low level of intelligence is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… They constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

After WWII, the eugenicist brand suffered from comparison to the Nazis who had been inspired by the findings of Brigham, Yerkes and Terman among others. In the post war years, we’ve discarded the overtly racist language but kept the assessments. Yet they still function the same way – sorting out blacks and the poor while prizing the rich and white.

This information is not secret. It is not kept under lock and key in some hidden military base somewhere. It’s accessible to anyone with Internet access or a library card.
We ignore it, because otherwise it would destabilize the current power structure – the corporate education policies that drive school practices in our country. We close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.

But it is.

“Standardized tests are the last form of legalized discrimination in the US,” said Education and Psychology Prof. Phil Harris.

With them you can give rich and middle class whites every advantage while withholding the same from students of color. And we don’t call it racism or classism because we pretend the whites earned their privileges by their test scores.

“We are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege,” said civil rights theorist Lanni Guinier. Test scores are the excuse for prejudicial and unjust practices that would be impossible without them.

For instance, if you really wanted to help someone who’s struggling, you might offer extra help. But low test scores are used as the reason for withholding that help. We actually use these invalid scores as a means of demeaning and firing poor black kids’ teachers – as if anything they could do could completely overcome biased assessments and poverty. In this way, we not only remove those already in place to help these kids, we ensure few people will volunteer to take their place.

And when you have a teacher shortage in these poor urban neighborhoods, you can use that to justify further deprivations. Instead of teachers with 4-year education degrees, you can hire lightly trained Teach for America temps – college grads who’ve taken no coursework in education beyond a six weeks cram session.

And if the parents of these children complain, you can open charter schools to pull a quick bait and switch. Make them feel like they have a choice when really you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You provide them with a school with none of the safeguards of a traditional public institution – no elected school board, no transparency on how tax dollars are spent, little oversight, a right to refuse any student they wish, etc. And when the school goes belly up, these kids will be pushed back to their former traditional public school that has had to make due with less funding and now can provide even fewer  services than it could before students jumped ship.

Using standardized test scores to judge not just students but whole schools, you can destabilize the entire system of public education. Charter schools and traditional public schools fight over ever-dwindling funding, one required to prove everything it does, the other able to do whatever it wants until it closes with little to no consequences for charter operators who take the money and run.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board that we can’t have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. But somehow that doesn’t apply to charter schools.

Somehow we’ve stopped caring about integration – one of the central victories of the Civil Rights movement! This plays right into the hands of the corporate education reformers. They have done everything they can to increase segregation because it makes it so much easier to privilege rich white kids and crush poor black ones.

They don’t want an equal mix of black and white, rich and poor in our schools. That would make it much harder to select against one class of student while boosting another.

They need to keep the races and classes as separate as possible. Charter schools help in this regard, but they would be insufficient without the help from many white families who flee from these “other” darker complected kids. It’s just another way to send more funding to white kids and less to poor black kids. They say it’s based on local property taxes. That way they can pretend it’s all fair and above board. Rich folks have a right to be able to give their kids the best, and if poor folks can’t afford to do the same, who do you expect to pick up the tab?

Oh! And let’s not forget setting “high academic standards” while all this is going on. They throw out everything that’s been working and come up with a Common Core of knowledge that all kids need to learn. Don’t include black and brown history, culture or the arts – just the stuff the business community thinks is valuable because they know so much about what’s really important in life. And have the whole thing written up by non-educators and non-psychologists and don’t bother testing it out to make sure it works.

Your rich white kids will have no problem jumping through these hoops. But your poor black and brown kids will stumble and fall – just as planned.

This is what has become of our public schools.

This is corporate education reform.

This is our racist, classist school system.

And it’s all based on standardized testing – a perfectly legal system of normalizing rich whiteness.

You Can’t Solve Prejudice With a Cookie-Cutter: Celebrate Diversity

057 soft chocolate chip cookies for blog

If America was a cookie, it would probably be chocolate chip.

Sure it’s mostly dough, but the chips are what give it flavor!

I mean, come on! Who wants a plain sugar cookie!? Yuck!

Maybe that’s what they meant all those years ago when they described us as a melting pot. All these different races and nationalities blending together to form a delicious whole.

However, some flavors just don’t mix – or at very least are slow to come together.

In fact, since the very beginning, much of America has been obsessed with ensuring we DON’T mix! Chips and dough can’t melt together! We must preserve the purity of the batter. In fact, let’s send those chips back to Belgium!

But times have changed. We’ve tried to legislate our way to equality. Voting Rights Acts. Anti-Segregation Acts. Non-Discrimination Laws. But the legal system is far from perfect, and it can only do so much. If we’re really going to become one big tasty treat, we’ve got to do something about it – each and every one of us.

So how do we all come together? What should be our goal?

For some people, the answer is silence. We shouldn’t talk about this stuff at all.

There’s very little scientific justification for categorizing ourselves into different races, anyway. Just button your lip and it will all go away.

To which I say, yeah, many things such as race, nationality, even sexuality are to a large extent man-made. They’re the product of culture and society, but that doesn’t make them unreal. They’re totems, archetypes, symbols we use to navigate the social universe. If you think a social constraint is unreal, try violating it.

Moreover, ignoring inequality won’t solve it. That only ensures that the status quo continues to reproduce itself.

In short, if we don’t talk about prejudice, we’ll never get over it. Our biases will never go away.

Other folks – many with the best of intentions – think not that our differences are unreal, but that we should ignore them. Don’t talk about us and them. It’s all just us.

No more twitter campaigns proclaiming #AllChipsMatter. We should instead join hands and proclaim #AllIngredientsMatter.

And I do see your point. We are all important regardless of race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But is this really the best way to come together as a nation? If all of us taste the same, we’ll certainly be one – one bland and lousy confection sitting in the bakery that no one in their right mind would really want to eat.

Homogenization has its strengths. Look at white folks. We used to be very different. Czech, Slovak, German, Russian, etc. Now we’re one indistinguishable whole. Sometimes we venture outside of that label for a few hours to celebrate some ethnic festival, but most of the time we’re just white, White, WHITE. Having a beer and a Wiener Schnitzel during Oktoberfest doesn’t change how you usually identify and how you are identified in the world.

But something has been lost here. You can only be blind to the differences in people if you wipe away the rough edges. People become less distinct, more similar. That’s not the best way to be.

There’s another way.

Instead of ignoring the differences between people, we should embrace them. Don’t hide your nationality, your race, etc. Celebrate them!

I am the proud product of this culture! I am the son or daughter of this type of person! I love this! I believe that! I am not just anyone – I am ME!

There is a danger when anyone suggests conformity as a way to fight racism, sexism or any form of prejudice. It puts the responsibility on those who are different. If you don’t want to be discriminated against, YOU need to conform.

I think this is wrong. You have the right to be yourself. Instead it is the responsibility of those who would discriminate to STOP.

If you’re racist, YOU need to stop.

If you’re sexist, YOU need to stop.

If you’re homophobic, YOU need to stop.

And so on.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t just walk it off. Prejudice is the result of years of enculturation, socialization and bigotry. It takes time. It takes a loving heart. But most of all it takes two very important things that few people in America have truly achieved:

1) Willingness to try.

2) Acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place.

That’s where we are today.

Very few people exist in the United States without some prejudice. People feel uncomfortable around those unlike themselves. We have preconceptions about how certain people will act. We think we know better how other people should live their lives.

These are all prejudices. And what’s worse, many of them are actually unconscious. I didn’t even recognize that I got nervous around black people – and now that I do, I don’t want to feel that way. I know it’s not justified, but I still can’t help the feeling!

So there is much to be done here in the USA to make us the best we could be. And it is our job to do that work.

Because the cookie of America has lots of cracks in it and more than a few nuts.