Talking Back: Refuting False Narratives

To be a teacher is in many ways to be a scapegoat. In America, we expect the impossible from our public schools. Educators toil in the shadow of continuous failure. Anyone who works in the profession is familiar with the attacks. We’re not equipping students with the skills they need to be college and career ready. We’re not training children to be 21st century ready. We’re leaving gifted and talented kids behind. We don’t use technology enough so our kids won’t know how to code. We use technology too often and therefore our kids have lost the art of conversation.

Ours is a cacophony of misdirection from inside and outside the profession. I wrote the following dialogue to help me process through the junk regularly flung at educators. I also wanted to share some of the resources that have nourished me this year.

American students are falling behind their international peers. We need innovation and entrepreneurship to revitalize our public schools. 

Wrong. In Mean Scores in a Mean World, Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby disaggregate PISA data to demonstrate that “70% of American children are among the highest-scoring students in the world, despite the public schools’ open doors” to students with limited English proficiency and special needs. The claim that we need to reinvent school to compete with the rest of the world is a ruse, a fear mongering statement designed to make schools and elected officials open their doors and coffers to private entities.

What about that other 30%? Schools are failing children of color and children living below the poverty line. 

Yup. Absolutely true. Schools have historically mistreated, marginalized, and underserved communities of color. And since high stakes testing rewards students who come from means, it should be no surprise when poor children perform badly on tests.

So how are you going to fix the achievement gap?

First off, the term achievement gap is problematic. In “Please Stop Using the Phrase ‘Achievement Gap’,” Camika Royal encourages us to watch our mouths around how we discuss the term. It enshrines white knowledge and places blame within families of color. To “eliminate the achievement gap” is to ignore the effects of more than two hundred years of racism, inequitable funding, and marginalization. Wealth gap? Yup. Education gap? Yup. Opportunity gap? For sure. But not an achievement gap.

As for the answer to the question, here’s a start. Pay a living wage. Provide equitable funding for public schools through a centralized mechanism instead of local property taxes. Resist the militarization of schooling and put an end to racist discipline practices. End the school to prison pipeline. Ensure that all children have access to advanced courses and specialized content. Actively recruit and retain teachers of color.

In the midst of all this equity, won’t someone remember the gifted and talented?

The notion that gifted children are being left behind makes me apoplectic. As Megan Erickson notes in Class War: The Privatization of Childhood, “high-achieving” students are regularly separated out from the rest of us. They’re taught to value individual gains more than communal problem solving and empathy and the ability to explain concepts to peers. And efforts to identify “gifted minorities” aren’t an option as they do nothing to “challenge the foundational propositions of giftedness.”

American students are not career ready.

Wrong. In Skills Gap, Skill Shortages, and Skill Mismatches: Evidence and Arguments for the United States, Peter Cappelli destroys the popular notion that public schools fail to prepare students for the workforce. Cappelli traces this idea from its contemporary beginnings in the late 1950s (Sputnik, the 1958 National Defense Act) through the 1990s (America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages?) and into the millennium (the ascension of STEM). It’s an employer’s duty to train their employees. The notion that schools aren’t preparing kids for work is absurd and unfounded.

Cultural competency and diversity training are about developing empathy and understanding. 

As Leigh Patel says in The Irrationality of Antiracist Empathy, “empathy does not require the realignment of social relations.” Spending a few afternoons paying lip service to a whitewashed form of diversity ignores the everyday racism that exists in our society and in our schools. Patel’s essay serves as a fierce reminder that asking white teachers to sit around and discuss our racial identities does nothing to confront racism or decenter white supremacy. She points out that while such discussions are necessary, they are not sufficient in developing a plan of attack to dismantle white domination.

Teaching is a fiercely political act. The classroom is, and has always been, a contested site of meaning. The funds of knowledge we teach, the ways of learning we value, and the subjectivities we help bring into being are all wrapped up in issues of race, class, gender, and power. The potential strength of our profession rests with our ability to rise up and talk back about the issues that matter.



  1. edifiedlistener

    Talking back. Precisely. The strength of this post is how you connect the disparate dots. We say we’re talking about education and student achievement but we can’t do that without also acknowledging how our capitalist and also racist structures create the frame. “Pay a living wage. Provide equitable funding…” These get at the economic foundations of the inequality we tolerate and perpetuate at the local, state and federal levels.
    The question-answer format allows for necessary clarity. You absolutely do away with window dressing and sugar coating and your frustration, born of many years’ first hand experience comes through loud and clear. Well said all the way around!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ali Collins

    This is an awesome piece. Glad to know I’m not the only one who gets apoplectic when arguing with all the entitled smilies whining about the need for “special” programs for their own gifted kids. Our district is one of the only urban districts to eliminate racially biased tracking via gifted tracking (it may be the only one). That hasn’t stopped affluent parents from trying to tear it down. I blog about ed policy in SF and rarely get comments. 8 was shocked when my comments section was targeted by trolls. The veiled and often overt racism expressed there, convinced me more than ever that gifted tracking is more about race than about actually supporting students. Feel free to check out the post. But, I warn you, the comments get ugly:


  3. Arthur Chiaravalli (@hhschiaravalli)

    Great article, as usual. Helping me connect so many dots in this constellation of myths.

    The interesting struggle in all of this is how, in addressing deficits related to one myth, we end up creating evidence for another. When we address standardized tests and end up scoring well (when all is said and disaggregated), we neglect how these standardized tests lead to functional fixedness in our students, especially the most vulnerable ones, who are subjected to an inordinate amount of this treatment. According to Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “in these schools, curriculum becomes test prep: doing worksheets and practice tests and getting ready for the big test.”

    The quandary for the schoolteacher/scapegoat is that by addressing a critique based one one myth, one almost automatically creates evidence for another. I would argue that students ARE becoming more functionally fixated — stifled in their creativity and stunted in their ability to confront complex problems without a single solution — due to an inordinate focus on standardized exams. But that myth became a reality when we started attending to the myth of “A Nation at Risk,” etc.


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