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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

For they are not doing what they can’t yet do

Don't read on me by c

Don't read on me by c

In mulling over the school to prison pipeline and the cosmetic differences between grouping and tracking, I’ve found myself asking the same questions over and over again:

Is there a link between early-childhood placement in a reading remediation program or scripted learning environment and eventual incarceration? (Don’t click if you hate Elseiver.) Even if there is only a correlative link, is it worth unpacking to find what, if any, role rigid instructional prescription plays in the lives and behavioral, cognitive, and moral development of our children?

When and where do we enforce such programs most strictly? Is there a correlation between the implementation of such programs and zero tolerance policies, tracking practices, and/or drop out and graduation rates?

What roles do we teachers play in the school to prison pipeline? Does our complicity in delivering remediation and/or scripted programs correlate to complicity with zero-tolerance policies and/or tracked settings?

Does needing help to read at age 5, in fact, result in a mandatory life-sentence for some children? Is reading remediation racial profiling? Is scripted instruction?

And if so, at which schools, in which communities, and for which children? Where are we looking to implement such practices and policies? Where aren’t we looking to implement them? How does the kind of education we agree to deliver correlate to crime rates, which – if they are a function of “criminals'” choices – are also a function of our choices about whom to police inside and outside school.

In analyzing such inequity, and in pursuing answers to these questions, what would we find? If we already intuitively know the answers, what haven’t we changed what we do? If we never go on strike against police states in some schools, than neither will the future teachers who graduate from them.

Are we complicit in using reading as racial profiling? Is remediation, however well intended, a fully scalable, coercive vehicle for a frustrated predestination? For justifying the criminalization of our kids?

While we can’t legitimize teaching illiteracy (which carries its own life sentence) as a radical response to socially questionable reading remediation practices, we can build learning spaces and adopt practices that teach to kids’ idiosyncratic literacies with more skill, purpose, and authenticity than we do now. We can support kids with reading difficulties by helping them approach reading from positions of strength and multi-modal literacies – from interests and capacities they already possess – rather than confront those kids daily with the threat of failure and/or punishment for not doing what they can’t yet do.

In finding new spaces, schedules, and staffing formulae to do so, we can also make our schools look and reel less like prisons and thereby work against the criminalization of our kids.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


24 thoughts on “For they are not doing what they can’t yet do

  1. Chad, such a thought-provoking piece-I’ve often wondered how much harm remediation does. The key sentence for me in your post is about teaching to kid’s idiosyncratic literacies. When my grandson was learning to read, he was in remediation, and he knew it as a young first (and second and third) grader. BUT he had a master reading teacher who taught him through his natural interests in science and non-fiction and he did, in fact, learn to read. Did he learn to love reading? No. Because he had other teachers who forced him to answer Accelerated Reader questions after reading books he wanted to read–there were never any great discussions, or time for him to ask HIS questions, just more worksheet-y kinds of follow ups to any book he tried to read for pleasure. BUT does he hate reading? I have to say no to that, too.

    What he’s done is learn to play school to the extent he has to in order to get by–and read for the purposes he wants. While he doesn’t read for pleasure, he continues to read books for what he can learn from them. Recently in Phoenix, he bought a visor and book on fishing to read/watch on the plane back. While he’s not one who will end up dropping out and being incarcerated (I hope), he is one of those damaged by our current system.

    We CAN do so much better. We CAN teach reluctant learners in ways ey don’t turn off to school learning- IF we change school learning to be meaningful and realistic and intriguing and thought-provoking.

    Why don’t we?

    Posted by Paula White | April 5, 2012, 10:42 am
    • I’m not sure, Paula, but I worry that it amounts to a fear on our part – that we fear our supervisors’ reactions; that we fear our colleagues’ perceptions; that we fear the impact of “poor” tests scores on us; that we fear parents’ perceptions and expectations of us; that rather than trust a process that takes years, we take sanctioned short cuts so we can sat, “Look, we did what we were told – this is not our fault.” I don;t think we do a good job of establishing trusting, lateral cultures amongst all adults’ at schools, and I don’t think enough of us will dare the work we should be doping outside of trusting cultures. That a supervisor or vendor can spout research about this approach or that doesn’t mean that we’re doing what’s best according to all of the research or according to basic, compassionate, dignified treatment of others – research is not synonymous with the greater good.

      Nevertheless, I’m interested no only in research on the issues in the post, but also on ethnographies of teachers’ practices and the reasons behind them. I hope our Coöp community sends links our way.

      Thanks for your comment, Paula – we cannot allow scores – AR or otherwise – to be our narrative.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 5, 2012, 10:50 am
      • Chad, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again-I don’t believe teachers get up in the morning and say “which kid can I make miserable today? Which kid can I screw up? Or which kid am I going to make hate learning?” I believe we do these mis-practices with all good intentions–but we don’t have the conversations about why we do what we do often enough-or possibly ever–with our faculties, within our schools and with our immediate supervisors.

        And I’ll add to that that I also don’t believe principals are deliberately thwarting good teaching–often they don’t know how to facilitate a staff to teach differently either.

        Those of us who seek out those conversations, who try to set up spaces and practices to honor differing learners need to have those conversations in our face to face situations as well as online.

        My question to the coop folks is: Are you. Or are you talking online only?

        And, Chad, how do we have those conversations effectively and so they bring about change? (I know this is our ongoing conversation…)

        Posted by Paula White | April 5, 2012, 11:04 am
        • I agree with your appraisal of our good intentions – I also agree that we have yet to unpack or look critically at what we do (some of it fear-driven, I believe) in conversations like those for which you call. I don’t think we’re out to hurt kids on purpose (generally), but I don’t think we’re out to conquer our fears, either.

          In all practicality, I think we look for and create spaces like this to make our thinking and work “visible;” I think we form local and trans-local opt-in communities. I am unsure of how to shift an entire school culture, though I have seen many folks do amazing things with local support. In that there’s no one answer, keeping this work alive in schools is important, as is starting new spaces that can provide some competition for – or symbiosis with – schools as they are. I’m very interested in what we can take from the Coöp and give to our local settings – time, people, and talk being the key ingredients in crafting an opt-in learning community. Regarding systems change, I wonder how much can we or supervisors mandate “progressive remediation” if that is at all desirable or necessary.

          It’s also all at once inspiring and worrisome to think of more fluid boundaries between school and community learning – it can be painful to think about making school better by making it smaller and more distributed at the cost of colleagues’ jobs.

          It’s all so ambiguous – and it’s difficult, but needed, to cultivate comfort in ambiguity amongst would-be change agents.

          What do you think? What could we do better here in Albemarle with our opt-in communities?

          I think it would be great to embed our central office corps in schools to distribute it and intermingle operations with vision in a concrete, local way. It’s not that we don’t share a vision or that people aren’t working to enact it, but I think more authentic work could be better supported if it happened onsite in our institutional backyards.

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | April 5, 2012, 11:19 am
  2. Chad – thanks for this piece–it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. (In a similar vein to something I wrote on Catalyst a few months back.

    We need to widen the acceptable wiggle room for kids in the “learn to read” / “read to learn” transition. There are such different developmental ebbs/flows/wormholes in kids under eight that or nine we need to make sure we respect the developmental differences before putting those kids into a bucket. Add to this the fact that we’re grouping kids by birth date and there are *dramatic* differences in life experience (and, thus, chunking ability) between a 60-month old and 69-month old child…yet they’re expected to learn the same material at the same rate. Why are we as parents & educators willing to call a child “slow” given these factors?

    I actually think this is a HUGE reason that so many parents are choosing to redshirt their child in Kindergarten. I know I’m considering it with my 3 year-old with a November birthday.

    Posted by Jen Lilienstein - Founder, | April 5, 2012, 11:13 am
    • “Wormholes” is a great way to put it, Jen –

      If we can’t use calculus to determine the flow rate of learning, we ought not to plot its graph arbitrarily.

      How would you answer Paula’s question about how to do what we do here locally?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 5, 2012, 11:24 am
      • I think teachers need to key into learning PREFERENCES as much as content PACING. (A nod here to what happened with Paula’s grandson–once he keyed into his interests/preferences and he was intrinsically motivated to read.) I honestly believe that the most dramatic improvements in student “aptitude” don’t happen in the classrooms, they are self-directed–it’s what the student chooses to do with his or her out of school time that either works “mind muscles” or allows them to atrophy. It’s our job as educators to not just introduce concepts/teach core curriculum, but introduce them in ways that are contextualized and presented in a way that honors the preferences & strengths of our current class mix or struggling students.

        (To Paula’s point about talking vs. action…this is what Kidzmet is all about.)

        Posted by Jen Lilienstein - Founder, | April 5, 2012, 11:33 am
    • Just another quick side note on the redshirting front…if you look at the demographics of the school-to-prison pipeline, many of these parents are NOT redshirting younger kids because Kindergarten is their first opportunity for access to desperately-needed free child care. While those with more financial means can give their kids more of an opportunity to become an Outlier by holding them back an extra year, it means that we’re potentially creating an even greater separation between the haves and have nots in our public school system as a result. Would love your thoughts.

      Posted by Jen Lilienstein - Founder, | April 5, 2012, 11:25 am
  3. I don’t know where you folks teach/work, but here in CA curriculum choices are made at the state level, the district level, and/or by teachers in district/management chaired committees where they make choices about which is the least harmful state adopted reading program.

    Once the crummy program is adopted there is then a demand for “fidelity,” that is, that the teacher follow–literally chapter and verse– the prescriptions in the program and teaching guides.

    Principals can and do walk around checking classrooms to ensure–via the power of the evaluation process–that the teachers comply.

    This is, of course, driven by the mandates to raise test scores.

    I would suggest it is the economic and societal forces creating severe deficits in many communities of decent housing, health care, child care, living wage jobs for parents, and pre-school that are the real drivers of the “pipeline” to prison. The pathways to prison are clearly laid out well before kids arrive at the school house door. It is the kids who are from the distressed communities and families who are most often channeled into remedial classes with the worst of the demeaned curriculums.

    Posted by Gary Ravani | April 5, 2012, 5:23 pm
    • Thanks for commenting, Gary –

      I’m sure that those of us in public school classrooms are familiar with curriculum adoption, and I’d agree with you that many factors contribute to the difficulties students face in making it through school and staying out of the criminal justice system.

      However, I don’t think curriculum adoption and teacher evaluation based on fidelity keep us from doing what is right. At some level, just as some administrators comply with the politicians and vendors in policing teacher behavior, we comply with our administrators and the vendors by policing our kids. There are many things schools could do differently regarding discipline and evaluation – many approaches that are less punitive and more restorative and community-building. When a system fails to do more than police kids, it’s up to us to be more humane and to take a longer view of kids’ needs at school than the system does. The system is concerned with compliance and non-interruption of content delivery and test score production. Because we are told to comply with a crummy program doesn’t mean we have to do so. We choose to do so. Maybe we self-select teaching because we like to comply. I don’t know. Regardless, it seems to me that there are better ways to approach students non-compliance with crummy work than scripted curriculum and zero tolerance polices. It seems to me like we – if not schools – could do less to go along with the other economic and societal forces damning kids to the criminal justice system.

      I’m not trying to cast blame; I’m trying to point out an opportunity- and responsibility – for moral action through subversion of the parts of school that view kids’ noncompliance with (often crummy) adult expectations as a criminal, rather than rationale, act.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 7:12 am
      • I see this as a “systems” issue.” Revolutionary” (non compliant behavior) at the individual level is only a start. All teachers should not be required to be a hero and risk employment in order to do what is right by kids. Doing right by kids should be “the system.” I recently talked with Pasi Stahlberg of Finland. High school achievement there, and isn’t that what everyone wants in some form, is a “byproduct” of social equity. To look too narrowly at the actions of individual teachers, no matter the justice inherent in their individual actions, does little to nudge that larger social system towards justice and equity.

        Posted by Gary Ravani | April 6, 2012, 2:40 pm
  4. Hey, I just want to observe what a powerful, sustained conversation this is here. I’m loving it.

    With Paula’s caution in mind here:

    “Chad, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again-I don’t believe teachers get up in the morning and say “which kid can I make miserable today? Which kid can I screw up? Or which kid am I going to make hate learning?” I believe we do these mis-practices with all good intentions–but we don’t have the conversations about why we do what we do often enough-or possibly ever–with our faculties, within our schools and with our immediate supervisors.”

    I’m still coming away with the intensely thought provoking idea: remediation is the new Jim Crow.

    Thank you for this. Like a good slap in the face early in the morning.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 6, 2012, 7:27 am
    • It’s a “new” way to justify tracking. Separate isn’t equal unless it all happens under the same school roof, or unless an entire school needs remediation. I’m thinking of American Nations here. In the first case, this kind of separation fulfills the Yankee need to save kids. In the second case, this kind of separation fulfills the Dixie need to judge others as failures. Remediation, like NCLB (sponsored by legislators from Yankee and Yankee-shaped states), is something we (white males) and get behind and enforce because it’s multifaceted enough in its glamour to “confirm” our diverse – but increasingly and alarmingly complementary – stereotypes about kids, boys, learning, schools, and our “others.”

      Insomuch as remediation and/or scripted instruction might not really interrupt the school-to-prison-pipeline after all, we should strive for better, more authentic, meaningful, and playful work for all kids that provides multiple ways to traditional, textual literacy which is not, ultimately, dependent on traditional instruction, and which should not, ever, be an obstacle thrown up in front of kids or their learning.

      I really appreciate Paula’s caution, too, as well as her call for engagement with one another around these issues – those conversations are well worth having.

      How is any of this playing out in the schools you visit, Kirsten?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 7:40 am
    • Kirsten – another thought.

      I know of a few divisions that realized they had over-identified African-American males as students in need of special education. To correct the over-identification, the divisions turned to tools like Response to Intervention (RTI), which sets up tiers of instructional interventions that can be used with students after detailed child studies are performed with classroom metrics.

      My follow up question: are we over-identifying African-American males for child study and RTI? Does RTI solve the problem of over-identification, or does it preserve the sorting function of special education identification under the guise of new rhetoric (managed, of course, by the divisions’ special education departments), or are those both part of the same desired, systemic outcome – an outcome none of us would plan for or endorse, but one that might ease us into being less critical of sorting by race in such school systems in a way that fits into how the systems operate and view their missions?

      The fundamental question forming in my mind goes something like this: is it worth preserving systemic behaviors in schools that appear to sort kids by race and result in some academic gain for some students without examining, undertaking, and recording the kinds of teaching, learning, and gain that go on in non-traditional learning spaces that do not allow adults to sort kids?

      I, too, am thankful for the conversation on this thread –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 4:27 pm
  5. I’ve heard that urban planners look at 1st (And 2nd? Unsure.) graders’ literacy rate in planning for the prisons that the given population would potentially feed into. Can anyone confirm, clarify or refute this?

    Posted by Elle | April 6, 2012, 11:37 am
    • This is an “urban myth.”

      Posted by Gary Ravani | April 6, 2012, 2:42 pm
      • Gary, very respectfully, I must disagree. Though I’m not a fan of the heroic teacher trope, I’m also not sure that doing what is right amounts to heroism, though it may entail sacrifice. Sacrifice, through painful, is a common reality throughout the world even though in parts of our culture it seems heroic because of how infrequently those of us with privilege ask it of ourselves. I’m speaking from my own experience here – I understand that yours may be significantly different from my own, so I appreciate your continued commenting on the post.

        Educators routinely choose to do what is right by themselves through labor unions and professional organizations. We are not incapable of risking our jobs for compensation and benefits. I question why we will not risk our jobs for kids because I believe us capable of it by precedent. If I understand you correctly – if you have equated risk-taking with heroism – how are we using the labor rights we have? Why did we win them? Why do we have them? Do they exist to protect our livelihoods or the freedom to teach and learn in the best ways with kids? How do we honor the sacrifices that labor and civil rights leaders and their followers have made (including, certainly, many educators past and present) by stopping short of striking or at least changing what we do in the classroom on behalf of our students? Why aren’t we willing to run interference for them and their learning in the face of harmful – or at least limited – practice? How does it help our cause to comply with a systems agenda that wants us and our kids to be consumers and not producers? To be criticized, but not to be critics? To be policed, but not to be independent?

        Teachers are a super-majority in education that acts like a silenced minority. If we admit that we are doing crummy work and making kids do crummy work, what is the real market value of the compensation we believe we deserve?

        Given that we agree that doing right by the kids should be – but is not – part of the system, on whom do we put the onus for change? The system will replicate itself; it will not change itself. We are its front line agents. Respectfully and non-rhetorically, do you think the best we can do is wait out our society? Does our society abrogate our individual responsibilities to our students? In remedial and scripted settings, does the way we teach/discipline students abrogate their responsibilities to us, their schools, and themselves?

        Regardless, if the choice is between doing nothing and doing little, I choose to do little.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 4:15 pm
        • My response was to the narrow question of whether urban planners used grade “X” literacy scores to predict incarceration rates some time in the future.

          Re your response; Too often teachers feel that if they are bold in their classrooms that will translate to positive actions in other realms. Maybe, but not likely. Teachers need to take firm vocal/collective action in the union realm and then, via that conduit, in the political realm where the real causal factors to what happen in the classroom are determined.

          That is, while they still have unions to be a conduit.

          Posted by Gary Ravani | April 8, 2012, 9:31 pm
        • Gary, the “maybe, but not likely” of it all, in my mind, makes what we do in our classrooms the most important form of individual and communal action we can take (is there some kind of “certainly, definitely” that’s happening elsewhere in support of kids and their learning?) – and I’m not sure I can separate out the individual from the collective, or visa versa – otherwise, I agree that we should be vocal about the quality of the work we’re asked to do in all sorts of realms.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | April 9, 2012, 9:16 am
    • Perhaps this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. The question remains: what to do when what we’re doing doesn’t work for so many young men in so many communities? What to do when reading is used to sort students and determine academic tracking for life?

      “Prisons don’t use reading scores to predict future inmate populations.”

      What else can you find, Coöp community?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 4:38 pm
      • Thanks, Gary & Chad. I had never been able to confirm or expand on this, and now I see why. Article was very helpful and super compelling.

        Posted by Elle | April 9, 2012, 12:17 pm
        • I am not suggesting teachers shouldn’t do the right thing for kids in their classrooms, I’m saying that is not enough. There are far too few teacher voices being raised (and this goes back to the imposition of NCLB) in opposition to the neo-liberal/corporate agenda that is being imposed on education. Having been in teacher union leadership for around 25 years I know there is the tendency for teachers to let the classroom walls enfold them and leave the “fight” to the more aggressive people. This has led to teacher union scape-gaoting and charges of “protecting the status quo” that, to the media and much of the public, brings further discussion to a halt. There needs to be a grass-roots revolt that bursts out of the classroom walls. (All, of course, without putting your employment at risk!)

          Posted by Gary Ravani | April 9, 2012, 4:14 pm
  6. Chad,

    Thanks for raising a subject that is often difficult to discuss in a rational manner.

    Is overt or covert racism at work? Do White Privilege, a “culture of poverty”, genetic differences (well-heeled scholars still argue this), prenatal health, post-natal health and nutrition, upbringing, preschool verbal interactions, or self-fulfilling prophecies play a role? The list goes on and on, and as it does, with each possibly being a key to unlocking the door of change, we send issues to committees or demand that studies be conducted in order to prove various hypotheses…

    …and nothing happens… except more committees and more studies… A great way to avoid change.

    Tracking or grouping (or is it profiling?) in education has been around since the time of Terman and Yerkes. So, too, have its effects. “America’s addiction to oil” may be problematic, but its addiction to the Bell Curve and “normalcy” may be far more deadly. Given the history of the USA, race and colorlines seem deeply ingrained in its Citizens’ psyche, along with lines of biological sex, gender issues, sex preferences, religious affiliations, chronological age, power and wealth. Little guesswork is needed to identify the populations that fall at the Curve’s “abnormal” left.

    The history of standardized tests, whether by way of verbal or spacial IQ, “G” or psychological makeup has played a significant role in my life. “Others”, who somehow managed to more-or-less excel on their educational pathways, have told me the same is true of theirs. We found a way to “game the game” of standardized tests, scored well, and were immediately subjected to scrutiny as to whether we were somehow cheating because we were “abnormal” (in a ‘good’ way) by virtue of having fallen outside what was expected of us.

    I don’t think Jim (or Jane) Crow ever left the building. I have several thoughts that might befit the general populace:

    But for the costs of prisons, the “school-to-prison pipeline” would never have risen to public view.

    Were a prison colony available, some island we could ship convicts to and rest assured they would never make it back to the homeland, most Americans wouldn’t give a rat’s @**.

    With the specter of a violent uprising due to population shifts lurking in the background, we are seeing a (re)convergence of interests to a degree not seen since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    I wonder if any change will be effected, and if so, whether it will be far too little and far too late…


    Posted by Brent Snavely | April 10, 2012, 10:48 am
    • Thanks, Brent, for this response.

      That idea of addition to “normalcy” sticks with me. We have bought this idea that the best way to become exceptional is to be as “average” as possible. That idea bears more thinking and discussion here and everywhere. More soon, I hope.

      Privately run public schools and prisons benefitting those who most often preach “personal responsibility,” which wasn’t really meant as an excuse not to look past the self. The mind, sadly, boggles less and less.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 10, 2012, 9:33 pm

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