Words are Important: Notes from an improved ‘gapper’

This post is brought to you via Louisiana professor and education-improver, Dr. Michael Hicks, continuing the exploration of the language that we use to describe education.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

This quote from John Dewey is how I introduced myself to the students in my fall semester Intro to Education course.

The quote served as a challenge to students to think deeply about the word “education” and what it really means to them, to their families, and to the perspective schools, communities and students that they will ultimately serve.

It challenged me, too. Always has.

But (pardon the opening preposition) it challenged me to think about other words and their relevance in my everyday use. Words like reformer, which I know makes me feel a certain way when I am described as such, has a different meaning when I embrace the introspection of it. Reform, which by most accounts means to make changes in a particular structure of things (typically a social, economic, or political institution or practice) in order to improve it, has evolved to take on new meanings. Not everyone feels the noble tinge that I do here in Louisiana when I hear the word.

To me, education reformers are engaged in the not-so-popular work of calling things not as they are, but as they could be. They are engaged in uncovering the completely obvious—but seldom articulated—educational plights of poor and underserved students. They are the Sally Field-type whistle-blowers of practices and people within our own profession of public education who embrace the status quo and blame lack of school progress on the demographics of the students. They are brave, intelligent, and have the best interest of all students at heart. They are educators – public, virtual and online, private and parochial. Yes, some are politicians and preachers, but most are principals and parents whose connection to what happens in the classroom is real and unescapably personal.

But, this is my definition.

Within and without the great state of Louisiana, education reform has several meanings and connotations. Whitney Tilson, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and many, many others have formed their own variant of the word which has lead to many other strains, producing diverse meanings and equally diverse feelings and followers. This is life itself, and like life, education is personal and intertwined with our own distinct interpretations of humanity.

I now prefer education improver over education reformer. Some of the improvements that I advocate align me with the more modern meanings of the word reformer, but some do not. Some of the improvements that I advocate are pro charter schools, and some are not.

Some of the improvements I will fight for are Louisiana-centered, and some are not. Some of the improvements that make sense to me address refocusing the purpose and viability of traditional neighborhood schools, and some address the technology and structure that students might require in the next century. The word “reformer” limits me, and I want to know no bounds in my advocacy for students.

This conversation that I’m having with myself (of which you are now a guest) reminds me of when I stopped being a gapper. Early in my educational career, I became a poster child for calling out and trying to decrease the achievement gap between Black and White students. I studied authors who helped me articulate the statistics. I wrote blog articles on how to fix the inequalities. When the achievement gap fire began to wane, I jumped to the opportunity gap, then to the exposure gap and next the expectation gap. Gaps, gaps everywhere, and not a spot to think! I was gap obsessed.

Words are important. Real discrepancies do exist in public education, private education, pre-K, K-12, higher ed, and in everything, when you look deep enough. This is life itself. The deficit language I once employed in order to address and “fix” these discrepancies was weakening my efforts and limiting my effectiveness.

I now prefer strength based educator over achievement gap specialist. When I’m invited to speak to or engage faculties in school climate and high expectation culture topics, I rarely mention the gaps I once waved the flag for.

At times, I wish I were a bird paleontologist – I’m intrigued with their research methodologies and their findings about our winged friends; but I am not. I am a professor of education and my words are important. When I ask my students how they will improve education, I get robust visions of the future of schooling from sharp young minds. When I ask who will be an education reformer, I’m met with blank stares. When I speak about the uniqueness of Black and Brown students and how to address underserved communities, I see excitement. When I talk about the gaps between certain NCLB groups, I get confused glances. It’s not what ideology you agree with more that I’m interested in, it’s much more personal than that. It is who will you serve as an educator, why will you serve them, and what will you do when you are blessed with the opportunity to do so.

I want my students to be engaged in the current happenings of American and global education. I want them to be informed. I want them to have very strong opinions. I also want them to know that words are important and that education, which per Dewey is also life itself, should constantly challenge them to examine the words they use to describe themselves and their very noble work of teaching other people’s children.

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Poverty

doublespeak

As Mark noted in his last post, Success Academy Charter School CEO Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Post in which she announced:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.

Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty, however, should keep the word firmly attached to its meaning. When we do that, we recognize that Moskowitz is actually 100% wrong. Over and over and over again, research shows that the elements that constitute the condition of poverty— including hunger, poor nutrition, illness, and lack of access to books— consistently and aggressively interfere with student learning. Over and over again, research shows that the #1 predictor of student learning is wealth, or lack of it.

Incidentally, poor children are also more likely to go to poorly lit, overcrowded schools that lack adequate books and supplies. That’s become even more likely in recent years because Moskowitz’s Success Academies have siphoned millions upon millions of dollars away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of New York City’s children.

Which brings us back to the topic of dissociating words from their meanings. Specifically, the word “public.” In her op-ed, Moskowitz claimed:

Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children.

The word “public,” as most of us understand it, means “available to everyone”– like a public park or bathroom. Given that meaning, Eva Moskowitz’s schools are not public. Success Academies refuse to admit students they don’t want (they currently accept roughly 20% of students who apply) and get rid of students they don’t like.

Since Success Academies are not public, it’s kind of shocking that when the chips are down, their students can’t compete with the best and brightest from the city’s allegedly failing public system. But those were the results this spring when every single member of the Harlem Success Academy’s first graduating class failed the entrance exam to the city’s select public high schools.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.