Teachers, We Must Resist: 2021 and the Perpetual Crisis of Education

Image shows a close up view of eight stereotypical school lockers
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

My toddler marched into the living room and held out the half-eaten remains of a peach.

“I HAVE FUN AT THE GROCERY STORE” she beamed.

Seven words.

“Oh, did you?” I asked, pulling her and the peach into an embrace.

Never one for full-on squeezes, she pulled back and thrust the fleshy fruit into my face with a good natured grin.

“PEACH!”

One word.

My wife trailed our child into the living room, her arms overflowing with the day’s mail and the week’s groceries. I relieved her of the mail and the gallon milk jugs and walked into the kitchen. The latest edition of Education Week had come. I helped put away the groceries and flipped to the back. The last page of every Education Week contains an op-ed. Despite Education Week’s fairly milquetoast reporting, their opinion section has always been strong. Some big names in education have published essays here, and while I don’t always agree with the opinions, I know there’s a solid chance that what I read on that last page could make an appearance in the public sphere. As a result, the op-ed is always the first thing I read.

“How about some TV,” I heard my wife ask. “What would you like to watch?Maybe Pink Fong?”

“HMM. NO! HOW ABOUT SOME COCOMELON?”

Five words.

I began obsessively counting my child’s words after she started missing some of milestones for speech development. At our doctor’s request, we submitted our child to to a battery of tests and speech experts. We had folks from the county come to watch us play with our child, documenting every interaction on a spreadsheet.

Eventually she opened her mouth and started producing speech. But my brain never recovered. Since then I’ve attended to her every utterance with a freakish scrupulousness. Once I began comparing my child against others by way of developmental milestones, I couldn’t seem to stop. Every aspect of her behavior, from sleep habits to language to motor development, now exists on one of three permanent tracks in my brain: below average, average, and above average.

This mindset doesn’t seem to help; it certainly hasn’t done anything to promote her literacy development. But it does give me something tangible to hold onto. Some easily trackable sign that things are happening in her brain.

“DADDY COME SIT WITH US!” she called, beckoning me to join her on the couch with her meticulously arranged stuffed animals. I grabbed my copy of Education Week, sat down, and did my best to drown out whatever JJ, TomTom, and YoYo were doing on the screen.

My heart sank as I read the title of the op-ed: The Pandemic Will Worsen Our Reading Problem: Another Outcome is Possible. A quick perusal through the article revealed a number of red flags. First, deficit language pops up everywhere. Second, the author pushes a managerial ethos that reduces education to a series of measurable outcomes. And finally, instead of being written by an educator, the piece was authored by a CEO for some educational non-profit organization.

Emily Freitag, the CEO, begins the article with an ominous warning: “the pandemic will widen literacy gaps, but only if we let it.” Things go downhill from there. She ends by calling for 100% reading proficiency by 2032.

Following in the footsteps of the classic crisis narratives of the past, Freitag conjures up a haunting vision of North American public education. She warns that recently released DIBELS test data are a harbinger of a stark future. Freitag projects massive decreases in postsecondary completion, lifetime earnings, and even life expectancy. The consequences will be especially dire for Black and brown students, she warns.

The main idea is explicit and stark: if teachers don’t act now, the nation will suffer.

Luckily, Freitag has a plan. She makes three recommendations to school leaders. First: track student assessment results with unflagging fidelity. Second: ensure every school has a cohesive literacy instructional program. Third: obsess over concrete progress. Freitag suggests that every adult in a school should know exactly what “level” each student is on. The op-ed ends with an exhortation for educators to “commit to getting 100% of the class of 2032 to read on grade level by the end of 5th grade.”

In my opinion, this op-ed is representative of where K-12 education is right now. It’s a signpost that sums up the prevailing discourse around what’s going on inside our schools. Freitag’s three suggestions come bundled with potent and uninterrogated assumptions about teaching, learning, and achievement. I expect to hear similar arguments when I return to school in a couple of weeks.

Therefore, the remainder of this post digs into the context surrounding the article. What are the historical antecedents for Freitag’s arguments? What are the ramifications of the article’s vision of education? And lastly, how does this relate to what’s going to happen in our classrooms in the fall and beyond?

Let’s put the op-ed to the side for the moment and take a look back. Before we begin, I have an important caveat. The following analysis examines the legislative reform cycles of the past in broad strokes. I’ve done my best to keep each explanation as tight and cogent as possible.

A Brief History of Education’s Crisis Narratives

Emily Freitag’s The Pandemic Will Worsen Our Reading Problem is a crisis narrative in the classic mode of historical bangers such as A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind. A crisis narrative frames whatever’s happening in education as a … crisis. Jal Mehta’s work on reform cycles helps us identify what educational crisis narratives have in common. They usually coalesce around three main ideas. Test scores show that our students are underperforming; if we don’t fix the problem, our country will suffer; and the best way to fix the problem is to implement more/better standards and more testing.

On a macro level, this type of narrative reinforces the view that teachers are technicians and that what happens in schools has little to do with larger social, economic, and political contexts. Crisis narratives encourage us to see teachers, students, and academic achievement as atomized units of analysis, isolated vortices removed from the bigger picture.

Crisis narratives have played a powerful role in shaping education policy since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1958. The satellite created a visceral panic among U.S. politicians and an economic elite who saw the event as portentous of the country’s declining global significance. Afraid that the country was losing important ground in the “space race,” folks in power decided that public schools needed to be more “rigorous.” As a result, public policy and discourse around this time centered on the need for schools to double down on teaching the basics of reading, science, and numeracy.

Then, in the 60s and 70s, landmark publications like Educational Wastelands and Why Johnny Can’t Read (and, later, Why Johnny Can’t Write) added to the panic by bemoaning the effects of progressivism and Black freedom movements on curriculum and instruction. Conservative critics assailed schools for being more interested in exploring alternative assessments and engaging students with popular culture than teaching them how to succeed in the “real world.” Critics bolstered their crisis claims by pointing to declines in national tests like the SAT. The answer? More standards. More tests. More rigor.

The push for more standards and tests increased dramatically in 1983 when the Reagan administration published A Nation at Risk. The influential document took the criticisms of the last few decades and slapped a fresh coat of ideological fear mongering on them. The title pulled no punches: the very fate of the nation was at risk. The document’s authors pointed to declining SAT scores as a a sign of “the rising tides of mediocrity.” The only hope for getting the country back on track was a renewed focus on the educational basics: reading, writing, and numeracy. Students needed fewer electives, more homework, and more tests.

Like the crisis narratives of the 60’s and 70’s, ANaR identified the problem and the solution as an issue of schooling. Teachers, curriculum, and assessment needed more rigor and less fluff. Notably absent was any discussion of the larger social, political, and economic factors that schools operate within and through.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

The myopic focus on the four walls of the classroom continued in the late 80s when President Bush convened the Charlottesville Summit, a meeting of the nation’s republican governors, to discuss public education. The summit produced the National Education Goals, an agenda for education reform that included goals such as “By 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn” and “By 2000, US students will be first in the world in math and science.” Note the similarities between these goals and Freitag’s call for 100% proficiency by 2032.

In the 90s, President Clinton was eager to establish himself as a “new” democrat who wasn’t afraid of getting tough on schools. North America’s international competitors were still out-testing the U.S. and something had to be done. His attempts at education reform led to two important pieces of policy: Goals 2000: Educate America and the Improving America’s Schools act. Both promised to improve North America’s public education system by … funding the development of high quality state standards and increasing accountability through widespread testing. The President also promised federal funding to provide improved training for teachers.

Now, professional development is an essential part of growing as an educator. But development that talks about keeping teacher’s skills “up to date” and “able to keep up with the increasing demands of a globalized society” keeps teaching and learning placed firmly within the realm of the technical. Such framing also suggests that problems within education are best solved through technocratic measurement, curricular efficiency, and continuous surveillance-through-assessment.

Systematic, federally mandated testing for all students remained elusive until President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation. NCLB required all students in grades 3 through 8 to be tested in math and reading. States also had to disaggregate their test data by subgroup (e.g., economically disadvantaged students, racially and/or ethnically minoritized students, and disabled students). By promising to rectify the persistent test achievement gaps between students from various social categories, NCLB tried to make good on the thoroughly North American idea that education could and would compensate for the consequences of life under a white supremacist nation-state.

NCLB took the previous reform attempts and crystallized them into a clear and cohesive vision for improving this country’s schools.

It set the context: being consistently outscored by other nations

It laid out the problem: low quality standards, low quality teachers, and low quality curriculum

It offered the solution: better standards, better teachers, and better curriculum

It created a target: 100% proficiency by 2014.

And it punished schools unable to meet the target by threatening their funding and sovereignty.

NCLB enshrined measurable progress into law. It solidified a connection between raising test scores and improving public education. It promised racial uplift through test data. It whispered global dominance by way of multiple choice tests. And most attractive for politicians and the economic elite, NCLB formally removed any talk of intractable social problems such as child poverty, redlining, and systemic racism.

President Obama’s education legislation, Race to the Top, promised more of the same: standards, tests, and training. Other than forcing schools to compete against each other for funds, Race to the Top isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s just more of the same.

These narratives ignore the basic reality that public education exists within a complex ecology of forces and institutions. To act as if classrooms and the humans inside of them can be understood outside of this ecology is short sighted and incorrect.

None of the reform cycles discussed here worked. If they did, then we wouldn’t still operate within an educational ecology that reproduces racist, classist, and ableist outcomes among different groups of students. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the last sixty years.

A Historical Palimpsest

Curry Malott urges us to resist the temptation to view history as a sequence of events forever moving forward towards some liberal enlightenment. Instead, Malott recommends viewing history as a palimpsest. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a palimpsest is “A parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second; a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing.”

When we view history as a palimpsest, we are better equipped to see the presence of the old within the new. For instance, the No Child Left Behind act wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Goals 2000, A Nation at Risk, Why Johnny Can’t Read, and Sputnik. The legacy of the past continues to bleed into the present.

The brief history I’ve outlined above attempts to explain how it’s possible that I can sit through a year’s worth of professional development without once being asked to interrogate what terms like achievement, proficiency, and below basic even mean. Why every school year opens with mind-numbing “deep dives” into last year’s test data. Why teachers, administrators, and central office folks experience crushing pressure to raise achievement scores. Why parents and students obsess over Lexile levels and reading groups. Why we assign students into deficit-oriented intervention periods that treat them as fundamentally lacking.

Why I count and obsess over every sound that comes out of my child’s mouth.

The palimpsest of North American education runs through Emily Freitag’s op-ed. Her opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:

”The data on the foundational literacy skills of the class of 2023 — the children who were in kindergarten during the shutdown and 1st graders during this bumpy and inequitable 2020–2021 school year — are terrifying. According to one commonly used reading assessment, the DIBELS benchmark measures, the percentage of students falling into the ‘well-below benchmark’ category that predicts future reading failure grew from 26 percent in December 2019 to 43 percent in December 2020. All demographic subgroups were affected, but Black and Hispanic students were particularly impacted. There is no precedent for this kind of decline in the last 20 years of using these reading measures.”

Minus the pandemic-specific portions, this paragraph could have come from any of the documents discussed in this post. Freitag claims a crisis, uses emotional rhetoric, and supports her claim with uninterrogated test data. She invokes the promise of equity by naming specific racial and ethnic subgroups. She avoids any analysis of social, economic, and political contexts. She employs language that frames teachers as technicians. For instance:

“engineer effective literacy at scale,”

“help schools combine the component parts and move through the steps with sufficient precision to produce reliable results for every child,”

and “the curriculum must be supported by effective screeners and diagnostic assessment to indicate which students are failing behind and pinpoint where students are in the progression of foundational skills.”

I expect these and similar arguments to be out in full force during my upcoming back-to-school inservice. I expect to hear about learning loss and unfinished learning and be bombarded with pie charts and deficit language about how far behind these kids are. As conscious, intentional teachers, we must resist and push back against this crisis narrative.

A Different Way is Possible

Although last school year was hellacious, there were a few bright spots that hinted at what a different vision of school might begin to look like. One that operated independent from the crisis narratives of the past. Many states waived their high stakes tests, proving that public education could exist without subjecting children to culturally and developmentally inappropriate assessments. Many school districts were able to partner up with telecom companies to provide free internet hot spots to students. Many colleges dropped testing requirements for admission.

The pandemic also opened up a space for schools to re-evaluate longstanding practices concerning grades and assessment. Was homework really necessary? Were zeroes in the gradebook the best way to induce students to attend to their studies? My social media timeline hummed with articles and blog posts exploring different facets of a new vision of education.

And then an onslaught of new guidelines and testing schedules began to flood my inbox. The dreams of a radical education, of something truly different, began to slip away.

Deficit perspectives have been reborn as “learning loss.” Schools are doubling down on “the basics,” understood in the 21st century to mean tested subjects. Legislation that requires documented interventions and remediation periods is moving through state houses.

The fear that this year’s crop of children will be significantly behind is locking us into the same poisonous vision of teaching and learning that’s been cultivated throughout decades of misguided reform movements.

Education is in a crisis, but it’s not a crisis of standards, measurement, or training. It’s a crisis of life under a hegemonic white supremacist state that systematically structures every social institution to favor a few over the many. It is a crisis that cannot be tested or standard-ed away. In many ways, these benchmark assessments are themselves responsible for creating the “basic” students they purport to unearth.

Everything has to be on the table. Rethink proficiency. Rethink the labels we use to categorize children’s literacy. In fact, rethink literacy itself. Rethink high stakes assessments. Rethink how schools interact with their communities. And, lastly, rethink what it means to be a teacher. What should it mean to fight for our profession? To fight for the children and communities we serve? To close the Excel spreadsheets and truly see the brilliance before us? To recognize that what happens in the classroom is intimately connected to other institutions like health care, employment, and law enforcement?

A radically democratic education that works for all requires nothing less.

Closer than you think.