The MLK Imperative in an Era of “No Excuses”
My father was a hard-ass, a Southern version of the Red Forman-type made popular in That 70′s Show. I grew up, then, in a “no excuses” environment rooted in the 1950s work ethic my father personified. 
Mine was a working-class background: My paternal grandfather (for whom I was named) ran the small-town gas station where I grew up, and my maternal grandfather worked in the yarn mills in the hills of North Carolina.
Way before the “no excuses” ideology consumed the education reform movement of the 21st century, “no excuses” ruled my childhood and teen years. My behavior at home and school? No excuses. My academic achievement? No excuses.
Two important realizations, however, stem from that childhood and young adulthood of mine.
First, most of my academic, scholarly, and personal success occurred in spite of (not because of) that “no excuses” upbringing.
And second, in retrospect I recognize that the central element in that success, feeding my working-class roots, was enormous privilege driven by the coincidences of my being male, white, and possessing the academic acumen preferred by social and educational norms.
Privilege, Humility, and Community
Nestled somewhat silently and invisibly beneath the “no excuses” atmosphere of my childhood was two wonderfully loving parents and a culture of literacy that can clearly be identified as the source of my academic success.
The line from Dr. Seuss to Kurt Vonnegut is being necessarily oversimplified here, but from my earliest recollections, I loved reading and books. And by my late adolescence and young adulthood, I became an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, through whom I came to know alternative views of history (Sacco and Vanzetti by way of Jailbird, for example).
The most powerful lesson I have drawn from Vonnegut, however, has been the words, life, and actions of Eugene V. Debs:
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
From Debs I have come to understand that anyone’s privilege is the foundation for humility, not arrogance (no “I deserve this unlike others” attitude), and that all people bestowed with privilege should feel compelled to work diligently for the equity of others, with Debs’ works and life serving as models.
The key to that understanding of and praxis drawn from privilege is my embracing critical pedagogy:
“Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.” (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)
My critical commitment, then, to equity is grounded in my work as an educator and scholar as well as my foundational focus on democracy, equity, and agency.
And it is there that I now turn to examining the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative in an era of “no excuses.”
Claim One: Poverty and Privilege Are Destiny
“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”
While this and other slogans are culturally compelling, factually in the U.S., poverty is destiny, and that reality is often as much linked to socioeconomic status as race.
“The suit alleges that the state, county and city ‘help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,’ said a Department of Justice press release. ‘As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.’”
The school-to-prison pipeline, I fear, is ultimately an inadequate metaphor for the current “no excuses” policies in many high-poverty and high-minority public and charter schools that are better described with schools-as-prisons.
To understand the need to change the metaphor, we must first acknowledge that in the U.S. white males outnumber Latino and African American males about 3 to 1, but in U.S. prisons, Latino and African American males outnumber white males about 10 to 1.
The race and class implications of the causes behind these data are captured, I think, in James Baldwin’s assessment in “No Name in the Street” (1972):
“The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….
The blurring of public institutions used for control instead of their democratic purposes has been questioned by Michel Foucault:
“The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Discipline & Punish, 1975)
The evidence that poverty is destiny is disturbingly reflected in our schools. Pre-kindergarten expulsions—overwhelmingly male and then disproportionately African American males—foreshadow our imprisonment inequities; and our “no excuses” school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, have directly transformed the school-to-prison pipelines into schools-as-prisons:
“These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond….
“Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling.” Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways
While “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) issued a manifesto claiming that a child’s ZIP code does not determine access to educational quality, several recent studies show that ZIP code determines a child’s school , and then that school’s policies and quality further entrench that child’s future. For many African American males, ZIP code determines school quality and then that school experience is both like prison and a precursor to prison.
These damning facts associated with schools, however, are but microcosms of larger social inequities. The U.S. is no longer a model of social mobility (Sawhill & Morton; Norton & Ariely), and the U.S. ranks near the bottom when compared with other industrialized countries in the percentage of childhood poverty, well over 20%.
Public schools in the U.S. fail in two ways that are masked by claims that “poverty is not destiny” and school reform alone will allow schools to reform society: (1) Schools reflect the inequities of the wider society, and (2) schools perpetuate social inequities.
One of the most powerful examples of how schools reflect society is that student achievement is correlated between 60% and over 80% with out-of school factors (Berliner, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ETS 2007 and 2009).
Yet, the current agenda coming from the NER remains blind to social realities and the inadequacy of their reform agenda, as Berliner explains:
“Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.”
Claim Two: “No Excuses” Reform Entrenches Status Quo of Inequity
The discourse of NER has successfully framed a “failed public schools” narrative that receives the shorthand “status quo.” A central part of that narrative is built on the argument that school reform alone can change society, but these claims, in fact, create a logic problem for NER: For schools to change society (and for which there is no evidence this has ever happened), those schools must be unlike the society, yet both public schools and NER mirror and perpetuate social inequities:
Public School Problem
“No Excuses” Reform
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers
Assign poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified)
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Common Core State Standards linked to new tests to create a standards-based testing and accountability system
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Federal government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Rename high-poverty schools “academy” or “magnet” schools
Close high-poverty public schools and open “no excuses” charters named “hope” or “promise” [see above]
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Erase experienced teachers and replace with inexperienced and uncertified TFA recruits [see above]
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned to teachers rewarded for teaching 40-1 student-teacher ratio classrooms
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Poor and Latino/Black students segregated into test-prep charter schools; special needs and ELL students disregarded [left for public schools to address; see column to the left]
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Teacher preparation rejected at the expense of content and pedagogy
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education [most of whom have no experience as educators] misinform and mishandle education
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above]: Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education [see above and the column to the left]: NER reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
For example, the opting out of NCLB policy under the Obama administration successfully combines the failures of traditional public schooling with the failures of “no excuses” ideology, notably the senseless consequences of the NCLB waiver in New Jersey:
Demographic Composition of New Jersey’s Priority, Focus and Reward Schools
# of Schools
Student Mobility Rate
NER advocates depend on a narrative maintaining a focus on a fabricated status quo of failed public education in order to continue the same failures of that status quo under the mask of NER.
Claim Three: Social Context Reform Seeks Equity
While often discredited by NER narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers (SCR) are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argues SCR.
SCR is committed to the Martin Luther King Jr. imperative from 1967:
“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
Instead of calling again for indirectly addressing inequity and poverty (NER), SCR seeks to reform directly both society and education:
Social Commitments to Equity
School-based Commitments to Equity
Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children
End high-stakes testing and accountability; implement teacher/school autonomy and transparency (what schools offer and how v. student outcomes)
Childhood/ family food security
End labeling and sorting students
Stable and well-paying work for families (reform healthcare so jobs and healthcare are not linked); increase worker’s right and empowerment
Insure equitable teacher assignments
Re-commit to fully funding and supporting universal public education
Confront inequitable discipline policies and outcomes related to race, gender, and class
Insure universal public college access for all students
Reject the traditional deficit perspectivedriving public schooling and reflecting cultural deficit view of poverty
Honor and support school, teacher, and student AUTONOMY (current accountability culture is about compliance, anti-democratic)
The King imperative, address poverty and inequity directly, must be acknowledged and embraced; the first step to direct action is to unmask the paradoxes of NER.
Ellison and Baldwin Speak to the King Imperative
Ralph Ellison’s address to teachers in 1963 exposes that social and educational failures have been historically intertwined, as he confronted “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.”
Ellison asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid,” concluding:
“I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.”
Embedded in the narratives of Ellison, and James Baldwin (see below), are the threads that show education is not experiencing a crisis, but a systemic reality of the inequity in the culture and institutions of the U.S. We have no “achievement gap,” but we do have an equity gap that metrics such as the “achievement gap” reflect.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” an allegory of privilege, exposes that privilege exists upon the back of oppression:
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)
This SF allegory is the story of the U.S., the story of ignoring the oppressed child that our privilege depends on by acknowledging “it,” or simply walking away.
As James Baldwin states in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” (1948): “The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….”
NER in education maintains the idealism that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the rugged individualism myth in order to pursue the King imperative that we seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform that is then wedded to educational reform.
We must no longer justify inequity with our privilege, and taking an objective, apolitical pose is a “walking away” we can no longer afford.
Direct action is the only solution to the problem of inequity.
 This blog is a narrative/expository version of a talk I delivered at the University of Arkansas on 18 October 2012; you can view the presentation PP here.
 See (a) “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; (b) The Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools”; and (c) “Is Demography Still Destiny?” from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.