Clueless in Secondary Education: How Standards Obscure the Lives of Students

If the key to fixing our lowest performing schools and helping our most underachieving students were simply a matter of raising academic standards, then these are problems that we would have solved long ago. The truth is, though, that creating healthy and sustainable schools and communities are reciprocal projects—ones that go largely unacknowledged by an appeal to higher standards.

Yet, despite this, raising standards is precisely what Gerald Graff, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, suggest we need to do. In his response to Diane Ravitch’s address to the MLA about the many, many reasons why the Common Core State Standards are a bad idea, Graff says he supports the CCSS and thinks it’s high time we let the neoliberal reformers have their day (as if these reformers aren’t the ones responsible for the continued narrowing of curriculum in schools, the de-skilling of teachers, and the all-consuming emphasis on standardized test scores that’s overwhelmed many of our public schools).

Charles Payne, in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistent Failure of Urban Schools, warns us that “most discussion of education policy and practice is dangerously disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools…most discussion fails to appreciate the intertwined and overdetermined nature of the causes of failure” (5). I urge Graff to read this book. And, I also invite him to spend some time in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

When reading Graff’s response to Ravitch, you might think that he’s spent half his career working in middle and high schools. Here’s a guy who seems to know quite a bit about what teachers should be doing, right? It turns out that like so many of the so-called education reformers, he’s never actually been a middle or high school teacher. Those of us who have taught or are still teaching in some of our most challenging schools are left to wonder just how well Professor Graff would fare teaching students in a public neighborhood middle or high school in Chicago.

According to Graff, the trick is to make sure we tell students that the college readiness standards are important. So I invite Graff (and other reformers like him) to take a shot at putting his plans into action by working as a teacher in the CPS for a few years. But, you know, he’s probably not going to do it. And, it’s precisely because of his lack of grounded experience in actual schools that one does not at all wonder how Graff can so easily dismiss questions about race and class. When it comes to these types of questions, he simply states: “I don’t buy it.” (Go ahead and picture the most dismissive wrist flick you can imagine while uttering this—i.e., I don’t buy it—statement.)

The truth is, though, Graff and reformers like him, will never take up the challenge to get in a classroom and do the hard work of teaching. Why? Because it’s so much easier to sit on the sidelines as an armchair reformer and tell others how to teach. I’m not saying that Graff isn’t a good teacher (his students at UIC may actually like him), but how much does he really know about teaching in our public schools? Let’s face it, it’s much easier to claim that the problems we see our schools are not about poverty (with no evidence to support such claims, of course), than it is to actually get your hands dirty working with kids from low socio-economic backgrounds—kids who may present unexpected challenges to the bright ideas that Graff and others like him cook up in their safe, well-heated offices 20 floors above the cold streets of Chicago.

Graff reduces education reform to a set of standards, but he’s not alone in doing so. He’s in good (loathsome?) company. In fact, he can now join the ranks of a long list of so-called education reformers, including our own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for whom the idea of actually teaching in our most difficult schools seems absurd. (His claim to his current post rests on the fact that his mother was a teacher.) This brings to mind a quip that made the rounds during the last CPS teacher strike: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws (or write essays) about teaching.

Of course, such a stance begs the question: How might Graff or Gates or Duncan feel if a group of folks, say a handful of successful people from outside their institution were to hijack their department or business or institution and tell them how they aught to run things? To take this a step further, why not apply the same logic that Graff deploys in his response to Ravitch to his own English department at UIC? According to Graff, in his own courses at UIC he sees evidence that the American education system has done little for  “the great majority of students who are essentially confused about how to do academic work, about how to analyze a text and summarize its argument, or about how to make an argument of one’s own.” If this is true, then why doesn’t Graff simply compel his colleagues to raise their standards? Why doesn’t he just raise his own standards, for that matter?

The answer, of course, to anyone who takes a second to think about it, is that the assumption that the majority of teachers and professors are somehow purposely holding their students to the lowest possible standards is ridiculous. Yet, this is precisely the assumption on which the standards-based reform argument relies: bad teachers and low standards are preventing kids from succeeding.  In other words, these reformers seems to be saying that we can trace all student failures to a lack of standards (or poor standards) on the part of professors (and teachers) that have kept these students from excelling in academic contexts.

One of the problems with this view (i.e., we need to fix the bad teachers by raising standards) is that all of us (even, presumably, Graff himself) have had a bad teacher or a bad professor at some point in the past. Our experience with these poor performers is, perhaps, what makes this narrative so powerful. We all tell stories about sitting through a lecture given by a drunk or incoherent professor or making phone calls in a class when the teacher fell asleep at her desk. The image of the incompetent educator is pervasive in popular culture, too.

But for most of us, an experience with a bad teacher or professor didn’t ruin our lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending professors or teachers who do their jobs poorly. But that’s why we have tenure review and teacher evaluations. How many of Graff’s own colleagues would believe for a minute that the way to solve the problem of poor student performance is by raising standards and holding professors accountable for how students perform at the university? This is sort of like asking the gym teacher to teach snowboarding all year and then punishing him when he doesn’t produce 30 replicas of Shaun White.

Ultimately, Graff and others like him (e.g, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, David Coleman) rely on the logic that bad teachers are the problem and good teachers are the solution, since its the bad teachers who would be teaching to low standards and bringing all our students down. Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. My own experience as a high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago suggests a quite different story. The vast majority of teachers I worked with were honest, hard working, and caring educators. But, please don’t take my word for it.

Take, instead, the example of the school district in New Haven, Connecticut. The teacher evaluation program implemented in New Haven, described by the New York Times as “an urban district with a high poverty rate” that “has faced enormous challenges in improving the quality of instruction.” Again, the assumption here is that teachers (euphemistically referenced here as the “quality of instruction”) are what need to be fixed. What happened next is instructive.

The author of the article decided to focus on what can happen when the two sides (i.e., the teachers’ union and politicians) come together to work out a rigorous teacher evaluation system. But, in doing so, the article misses something important. Out of the 1,846 teachers in the district 75 were targeted for remediation. For those of you attempting to do the math, that’s 4% of district teachers. In other words, 96% of teachers were doing a good or excellent job. Of the 4% identified with the new evaluation system, 34 were eligible for and elected to take early retirement. That means that only 2% of district teachers who chose to remain on the job needed additional supports to improve their teaching.

Yet, the myth of the bad teacher persists.

It’s true that no one will argue for lowering academic standards, and I’m certainly not trying to make that case. But, this just means that the argument for raising them is kind of beside the point. It’s something that almost goes without saying. It’s like saying that we want good teachers for all students. It’s something that’s so deeply engrained is all of us that it feels like common sense. Saying that we want to raise standards also appeals to our most deeply held beliefs about merit, competition, hard work, and success. And, it’s why we keep coming back to this argument.

Yet, focusing on standards alone is a losing proposition; it diverts our attention and resources away from exploring ways to create healthy and sustainable communities, and, instead, encourages us to see success in narrow, individualistic terms. This approach also lets us off the hook and allows us, as Graff does, to ignore the role that poverty and inequality play in our society. This is a version of saying that wealth and privilege don’t really matter to an individual’s success. Putting the problem this way, of course, just shows how silly this view really is. We all know wealth and privilege matter. So, why do we insist that poverty and inequality don’t?

The real question in the education reform debate should not be about how to make the contest for jobs and more education harder—doing so just ensures that more people will fail; we should be asking questions about how to improve the conditions for all those who wish to participate and contribute to society in meaningful ways.

Schools should be about more than just competing for slots at the right colleges in order for the select few to get high paying jobs in urban centers. This current approach—developing and extracting human capital—simply drains much needed resources from high need communities and does nothing to address our social problems. Success for students becomes an escape narrative, where leaving one’s community is seen as the ideal outcome.

In December of 2012, NYT reporter David DeParle wrote a story about three girls from a low-income community in Galveston, Texas. These girls were remarkable not only for their drive and ambition, but also for their ability to do college-level work. In fact, these are the types of low-income students that Graff and like-minded reformers imagine they will help create when they say that all we need to do is raise standards in schools.

But, these girls faced another set of challenges—ones not directly connected to academics—that Graff seems unwilling to acknowledge. According to DeParle, “the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.” In a nutshell, the girls had the skills, but not the supports to survive the transition to higher education. Class played a big role in all of this. The article goes on to describe how our education system does more to preserve, rather than break down class divisions.

So, it would seem that the evidence is all around us—over simplified, one size-fits-all solutions like raising standards don’t work. Good schools emerge from healthy and sustainable communities (it’s not just about recruiting, supporting, and retaining great teachers–though this is important). Raising standards won’t solve our social or our academic problems. Poverty and inequality are the best predictors of academic success (as are wealth and privilege).

Whether we want to do something about these things or not is another question.



    1. For some reason, I’m just seeing this now. Great post, Paul. Thanks for sharing.

      One thing I’d add is that while my experience teaching composition courses to incoming college students is very similar to yours and to Graff’s, I think I see the problem a little differently: students new to college don’t know how to write like college students, because they’ve just become college students. It’s true, as you say, that an overemphasis on AP prompts in high school isn’t helping matters much. And, I think we agree that simply raising standards won’t help much either.

      But, I think an important first step might be for colleges and university educators to acknowledge and then embrace the fact that it’s actually the job of the college to teach college students to write like college students. The idea that all students who enter college will write at a college level on their first day of class is a myth that does real damage to our collective perception of public education.

      When I was teaching freshmen composition, I heard my fellow doc students in English, who were also teaching entry-level composition courses, complain about the many deficits they saw in their students’ writing. I had just spent five years teaching in Chicago Public Schools, and I was thrilled to have so many students coming to class regularly, completing work on time, reading the assigned text, and genuinely engaging in the work of the class.

      And, yet, despite these things, it was as if many of my colleagues couldn’t believe that they were being asked to help students learn to write well. What’s even harder to understand, though, is just how and why college and university English teachers can go on imagining that it’s someone else’s job to teach students how to read and write at the college level. Why do so many of us continue to think that students should have already learned something that we’ve been asked to teach them?

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