In The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Jonathan Kozol refers to a comment by President George W. Bush about Bush’s goals for education. President Bush said, I went to Washington to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. Later, in 2004, he said, It’s working. It’s making a difference.
Kozol writes: It is one of those deadly lies which, by sheer repetition, is at length accepted by large numbers of Americans as, perhaps, a rough approximation of the truth. But it is not the truth, and it is not an innocent misstatement of the facts. It is a devious appeasement of the heartache of the parents of the black and brown and poor and, if it is not forcefully resisted and denounced, it is going to lead our nation even further in a perilous direction (p.284).
That lie is kept alive by those who promote charter schools, choice, and online learning, and who scapegoat teachers over reading and what and how they teach. They are throwback shills for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), failed policy whose underlying intent was to defund and end public schools and the teaching profession.
NCLB ushered in the era of “no excuses.” Reading, more specifically phonics, became the issue used to cast blame on teachers and their schools. The scandalous Reading First was used to push particular phonics programs for profit.
Natalie Wexler recently wrote in Forbes “How ‘Reading Instruction’ Oppresses Black And Brown Children.” Wexler is one of the many refashioned NCLB spokespeople. Instead of the Achievement Gap she writes about the Knowledge Gap.
Her writing politely slams teachers and how they teach. Look closely and you will find her connections to Stand for Children, The New Teacher Project, The Mind Trust, Teach for America, ExcelinEd, charter schools, and online learning. These folks always use the achievement gap to promote their agenda.
In her recent essay, Wexler skidded off the road of her usual subtle snipes to aggressively associate teachers to racists due to their supposed inability to teach black and brown children how to read.
During this difficult time, when many are looking for social change and healing, when teachers are at the heart of saving student learning and public education, Wexler’s article was inflammatorily and meant to divide. She has apologized and removed the worst statements. But her article contains other troubling points that need to be addressed.
No one denies that reading instruction that includes phonics is important. Some points Wexler gets right. But she twists facts and ignores important variables.
Working with poor children in poor schools is tough, especially when you know that wealthier schools have the amenities that your school goes without. Think decent classrooms, better resources, and parents who can afford to help you purchase material, or throw bake sales to raise money to get you what you need to teach.
It’s wrong to think you can separate how teachers are treated, and how they teach. Try working with a class of thirty-five students with twelve textbooks. Teach in a classroom that’s too small, too hot or too cold, too noisy, with a leaky roof. These are not nuances you can ignore while you drill students on their sounds. They affect the teacher and they hurt the student.
Wexler doesn’t seem to understand that social studies and science were removed from classrooms during NCLB, in order to browbeat poor children into a narrower curriculum of only reading and math! They lost the arts too.
If white people who teach in black and brown schools are sensitive, they quickly realize that students would have a better chance of relating to you if you were black. Why aren’t there more black and brown teachers?
How does it feel to teach in a school where children with asthma or other health conditions can’t concentrate? How did Deamonte Driver’s teacher feel when he died because of a toothache? Systematic phonics didn’t save him.
Good instruction may indeed help the children of Flint, Michigan, but we cannot deny that lead poisoning is a good excuse for learning difficulties.
After the brutal death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, we learned that Freddie’s behavioral difficulties, difficulties learning in school, likely had to do with peeling lead paint dust he was exposed to as a child. The family had tried unsuccessfully to get the landlord to fix it.
Then there’s those high expectations. We should always encourage children to do their best, but here’s Wexler’s idea of second grade, a class she followed.
Those children were lucky enough to attend a school using an atypical elementary curriculum focused on meaty content: Ancient India, Greek mythology, the human digestive system, the War of 1812—and the Civil War, slavery, and civil rights heroes. They were deeply engaged in the material and proud of all they were learning. And the knowledge and vocabulary they were acquiring—words like labyrinth and plummeted—would provide a foundation for their success in high school and beyond.
If a poor black or brown second grader understands more Greek Mythology than Disney’s Hercules, great! But please don’t imply that this is a normal curriculum for the majority of second graders. I would not want my white child studying wars at that age. And in case you think a second grader has a reading problem because they can’t read labyrinth and plummeted, here’s a sample of a 2nd grade word list.
Wexler never tells us how important school libraries are to raising achievement, a fact that has been proven, and how those libraries and librarians have gone missing in poor schools (See Poverty & Reading: The Sad and Troubling Loss of Librarians and Real Librarians.)
Wexler makes light of or ignores the effects of NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, and Betsy DeVos stealing funding from public schools.
Poverty and schools that run on a dime have been failing students for years. As a teacher, I still can’t get it out of my head, that when Michael Brown died in Ferguson, his school didn’t have money for all the students to have their own graduation gowns.
The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.
I appreciate that Natalie Wexler apologized. I hope this forces her to write more objectively and step away from those who see reading as profitmaking, and who want to ultimately end public education. Their ideology has become deeply ingrained in how our public schools are run. It is the wrong belief system for America.
We need good reporters to spread the message of what students need to learn, while supporting teachers with honesty and understanding, and who will bring teachers together with parents, not divide them. There’s always hope that people can change. I think after the last week, we’re all banking on that.
Kozol, J. (2005). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown.
McCoy, T. (2015, April 29). Freddie Gray’s life a study on the effects of lead paint on poor blacks. The Washington Post.