Saturday, September 3, 2016

WWU Creates the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Crime Against Humanity

Editor:  Western Washington University has created a new Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Crime Against Humanity in honor of my colleague, Ray Wolpow, who has recently retired from our department. It will be a continuation of Ray’s earlier work.  In 1998, Ray developed the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education “to assist educators in the design and implementation of Holocaust, genocide and ethnocide-related studies.” The center was “dedicated to remembering and learning from the past in order to promote the human rights of all people,” and was consistent with House Bill 2212 passed by the Washington State Legislature that stated: “Every public high school is encouraged to include in its curriculum, instruction on the events of the period in modern world history known as the Holocaust, during which six million Jews and millions of non-Jews were exterminated. The instruction may also include other examples from both ancient and modern history where subcultures or large human populations have been eradicated by the acts of mankind. The studying of this material is a reaffirmation of the commitment of free peoples never again to permit such occurrences....”  Ray often brought to the campus survivors of the Holocaust to speak to our students.  We are pleased that one of them Noémi Ban has agreed to an interview on our blog that we will be publishing shortly.
WWU Creates the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Crime Against Humanity

Press Release:

Western Washington University has created the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity and named Sandra Alfers, professor of German in Western’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages, its founding director.
The institute is named after retired Western Professor Ray Wolpow.
“We are very pleased to have created this institute and grateful to the faculty and staff who pushed for its creation. The Holocaust and genocide more generally are difficult subjects, but their study is vital if we hope to prevent such tragic events in the future,” said Brian Burton, associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Western. “I can think of no more appropriate name for the institute than that of Ray Wolpow, who has done so much to educate so many people – at Western and in the public schools – on the Holocaust, genocide, and ethnocide. And I can think of no better person as the founding director than Sandra Alfers, who has led the process of forming the institute.”
The mission of the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity is to advance knowledge about the Holocaust and genocide, including ethnic and religious conflict as well as attendant human rights abuses. While the institute will focus, first and foremost, on the Holocaust and genocide, broadening the scope of the institute to include crimes against humanity will enable the university to take advantage of additional expertise among Western faculty.
“Ray has been a tireless advocate for Holocaust, genocide, and ethnocide education on campus and in the community, and I look forward to continuing his important work,” Alfers said.
The new institute will build on work pioneered at Western by Wolpow, faculty emeritus at WWU’s Woodring College of Education and founder of the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Ethnocide Education (NWCHGEE) at Western. The NWCHGEE originally was established in 1998 to assist educators in the design, and implementation of Holocaust, genocide, and ethnocide-related studies. 
“I am honored to have the institute bear my name.  However, it is important to remember that our seminal work here at Western was possible only with the guidance of Holocaust survivors Noémi Ban, Fred Fragner, and Magda Dorman.  It was their courage, their willingness to bear witness to unfathomable events, their dedication to the pursuit of painful truths that inspired faculty and students alike.   I trust that our institute will continue to grow the knowledge, compassion and willingness to use the lessons of the past to advocate for the human rights of all people,” Wolpow said.
With Wolpow’s retirement in 2014, members of the campus community discussed how NWCHGEE in Woodring College could continue its work, and how other departments could be involved in furthering its mission and visibility on- and off-campus.  Western’s Dean of Libraries Mark Greenberg convened an interdisciplinary group of interested faculty members. With support from Woodring College Dean Francisco Rios, a committee – which included faculty from several colleges and academic departments at Western – was formed. Also, Western’s Provost’s Office, where the new institute will be located, supported the committee with funds for a speakers’ series.
The institute will provide Western students with a global education rooted in the liberal arts that investigates the Holocaust, genocide and crimes against humanity from various perspectives and academic disciplines. The institute also will address the state’s recommendation to teach the Holocaust in state public schools, by giving future teachers in training at Western this much-needed background. And new courses will be created at Western as part of an anticipated academic minor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Through teaching, research, and outreach, the institute will complement and add to already existing programs and entities on campus – for example, the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity at Woodring College, the Center for Law, Diversity and Justice at Fairhaven College, and the Institute for Global Engagement.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

We are the Constitution’s Founders: a Lesson for the Generations

We are the Constitution’s Founders: a Lesson for the Generations

Someone at the recent Democratic Convention mentioned that we are all the founders of the Constitution. I don’t remember now who said it, but it remained in my memory like so many quotes that have gotten implanted only to take hold later in more fertile ground. I have been often amazed at the almost reverential ways we treat the constitution and its founders as if the document were some kind of religious tract and its founders its prophets. Quote from it as if it were a document meant as revelatory truth to be used by all sides to bolster whatever view they support, rather than an embodiment of 18th century classical liberal ideas that provided a universal set of ideas that were capable of increasingly including more and more of its citizens into its language, but one which its founders exhibited a very limited vision of who the “WE” included.

One of my teachers years ago, the educational historian Lawrence Cremin, used to always say that we became a nation before we knew who we were as a people. (Another one of those quotes that remained dormant until ready to take root) Unlike so many nation states that can trace their origins in a murky past, we instead announced nationhood at a particular historical moment and have been trying to figure out what we meant by it ever since. Bringing others into the “WE” has always involved more than a rational argument or linguistic effort, but rather has followed long fought out battles by those at Seneca Falls, the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the bridge at Selma, the voices at Stonewall, and so many others, who eventually expanded the meaning of “WE” to include the other. In effect, we are all the founders of this document as we expand the meaning of “WE” to include the other who had been excluded.

Rather than a reverential document, the Constitution is a clarion call to each generation to think anew about its fundamental meaning.  As the editor of an educational journal, I have been thinking about the meaning this has for the education of our children. It raises the question about what education is really all about. Education is a shortcut for the next generation to start at the point where we left off, but as history has often shown, it becomes only words until that generation can actually experience it in their own lives and in their own times. One of my mentors years ago used to liken the educational journey to that of a monk (he was a Jesuit and an educator of teachers) one encounters on the road of life who lets you know the price of the choices you are meeting at a particular fork in the road. The choice is always the travelers to make. Needless to say, my colleague was not very popular in a world and a school system and a teacher preparation program that increasingly demand that all learning be reduced to a set of concrete objectives that can be taught and tested in some standardized way. But education, he insisted, was a journey with an unpredictable outcome. Unfortunately, what we cannot assure as a learning outcome has often been omitted from our curriculum.

But perhaps, that is the lesson. In facing our role with greater humility, we recognize that our influence is indeed limited. But rather than abandon what we might accomplish, we should amplify it. I often told my students when they were making choices about the courses they will select to meet their liberal arts requirement for their college degree, to not just select a course because it fits a particular time slot or was recommended by their classmates for its easy grade, but rather to ask themselves what am I becoming as a result of this course, what am I allowing myself to be influenced by, who am I becoming as a human being. Although it offers no answers for our students, it will provide them with the questions that just might make them see their role as the future “founder” of a constitution that keeps changing its meaning as it includes them as its author. Perhaps, all we can really do is to plant a seed that may flower when the moment is ready for it to take root just as a casual, probably long-forgotten comment at the Democratic Convention did for me.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

U. S. Supreme Court Again Rules on the Use of Race in Higher Education Admissions: an Analysis

U. S. Supreme Court Again Rules on the Use of Race in Higher Education Admissions: an Analysis

 Editor:  The U.S. Supreme Court again ruled on the use of race in Higher Education admissions.  The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, decided on June 23rd, follows several earlier pivotal affirmative action cases: the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger, the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and the earlier Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2013.  (See chart at the bottom)

Although we have yet to publish articles on this issue, the Journal of Educational Controversy did devote an issue to the use of race in public school admission policies in its 2007 issue (Volume 2, Number 1).  In that issue, we considered the U.S. Supreme Court decision in PICS v Seattle School District, with legal arguments on both sides against a background of Washington state history and politics. Because the case was not decided until after the issue was published, we followed up with a discussion of the decision on our rejoinder page. We may address this issue as it affects higher education in the future.

Below is an analysis of the recent Fisher case by Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed.  Mr. Jaschik has given us permission to reprint his analysis of the decision.

Supreme Court Upholds Consideration of Race in Admissions
Scott Jaschik, Editor, Inside Higher Ed
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions. Some parts of the decision in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin [1], related to features unique to that university.

But other parts of the case will likely apply to admissions and financial aid policies in most of American higher education.

The court ruled [2] that the primary reason that the plaintiff in the case was denied admission to the university was not its consideration of race in admissions, but its “10 percent plan,” in which the top 10 percent of high school graduates are admitted to the public college or university of their choice.

The university does have “a continuing obligation” to meet the legal test of “strict scrutiny” by “periodically reassessing the admission program’s constitutionality, and efficacy, in light of the school’s experience and the data it has gathered since adopting its admissions plan, and by tailoring its approach to ensure that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interests,” the decision says.

At the time that the plaintiff was rejected for admission, however, the decision said, the university had met that burden.

“The record here reveals that the university articulated concrete and precise goals -- e.g., ending stereotypes, promoting ‘cross-racial understanding,’ preparing students for ‘an increasingly diverse workforce and society,’ and cultivating leaders with ‘legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry’ -- that mirror the compelling interest this court has approved in prior cases,” said the decision.

The decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, generally considered a swing vote on many issues, but who has consistently in the past been skeptical of education policies based on race. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. -- joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas -- strongly criticized the decision and the University of Texas policies. The dissent calls the university’s arguments “shifting, unpersuasive and, at times, less than candid.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who worked on the case as solicitor general before she joined the Supreme Court, recused herself from the case. When Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, the stage was set for a ruling by only seven justices. Scalia consistently opposed the consideration of race in admissions [3], so his death may have cleared the way for today’s decision. A four-four tie on the case would still have left the University of Texas policies intact, but would have not have the same power as a precedent on the issue.

A defeat for affirmative action had been widely expected because, with Kagan not voting, only three justices on the court are considered reliable backers of affirmative action.

Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston and interim president of the university’s downtown campus, is one of the few legal observers who has consistently predicted that affirmative action would survive the legal challenge brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman rejected for admission by the University of Texas. Via email on Monday, he said, “It is about time that Fisher accepts that she was inadmissible, and that she lost, once again. No applicant of color would ever get so many bites at the apple, and whites still make up a disproportionate percent of percentage plan admits and discretionary admits at UT.”

Fisher, through her lawyers, released this statement: “I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled that students applying to the University of Texas can be treated differently because of their race or ethnicity. I hope that the nation will one day move beyond affirmative action.”

Leaders of many higher education groups praised the ruling. President Obama spoke about the decision at a White House briefing, saying, “I’m pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our society, and that this country should provide a high-quality education to all our young people, regardless of their background. We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes, but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody. And that’s what was upheld today.”

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, tweeted her approval.
Hillary Clinton’s Tweet:

The Supreme Court's Fisher decision is a win for us all. The doors to higher education should be open to every American, not just some. -H


Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has not weighed in since the decision was announced.

Today’s ruling is the second time the Supreme Court has considered the Fisher case.

Ruling 7 to 1 [8], the court in 2013 found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had erred in not applying “strict scrutiny” to the policies of UT Austin, which were challenged by Fisher. She said that her rights were violated by UT Austin’s consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Fisher’s lawyers argued that the University of Texas need not consider race because it has found another way to assure diversity in the student body, the 10 percent plan.

Fisher was a high school senior when she first sued UT Austin [9] in 2008. She enrolled at and graduated from Louisiana State University after she was rejected by UT but has continued the legal case over her rejection.

The 2013 ruling essentially raised the bar for colleges in terms of how they had to justify the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions, but did not bar its use.

In July 2014, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld, 2to 1, the UT admissions plan [10]. And it is an appeal of that ruling on which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

The majority decision from the appeals court said that just because Texas could get some diversity based on the percentage plan alone does not mean it can’t do more than that. “An emphasis on numbers in a mechanical admissions process is the most pernicious of discriminatory acts because it looks to race alone, treating minority students as fungible commodities that represent a single minority viewpoint,” the judges wrote. “Critical mass, the tipping point of diversity, has no fixed upper bound of universal application, nor is it the minimum threshold at which minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race.”

Further, the appeals court said that the University of Texas is correct not to rely solely on the percentage plan, which in turn works because of segregation. The plaintiff’s “claim can proceed only if Texas must accept this weakness of the top 10 percent plan and live with its inability to look beyond class rank and focus upon individuals,” the decision says. “Perversely, to do so would put in place a quota system pretextually race neutral. While the top 10 percent plan boosts minority enrollment by skimming from the tops of Texas high schools, it does so against this backdrop of increasing resegregation in Texas public schools, where over half of Hispanic students and 40 percent of black students attend a school with 90 [to] 100 percent minority enrollment.”

Justice Alito's dissent argued that the majority decision did not comply with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision. “At best, the university’s attempted articulations of ‘critical mass’ before this court are subjective, circular or tautological,” the dissent says. “The university explains only that its ‘concept of critical mass is defined by reference to the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce.’ And, in attempting to address when it is likely to achieve critical mass, the university explains only that it will ‘cease its consideration of race when it determines … that the educational benefits of diversity can be achieved at UT through a race-neutral policy ….’

“These articulations are insufficient. Under the rigors of strict scrutiny, the judiciary must ‘verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.’ It is not possible to perform this function when the university’s objective is unknown, unmeasurable or unclear.”

Anxious Presidents

College and university presidents, most of whom backed the University of Texas, have been waiting anxiously for today's ruling.

Michael V. Drake, president of Ohio State University, was formerly chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, which is banned by the California Constitution from considering race or ethnicity in admissions. He said that the California limits "make the job of creating inclusive higher education that much more difficult."

He said that Ohio State, like Texas, does consider race and ethnicity, but as one factor among many. "We are looking for the very best, looking at a variety of factors," he said. "This decision affirms the real value of inclusion in a society like ours -- particularly in bringing people from traditionally marginalized groups into our system."

Thomas Sullivan, a lawyer and legal scholar who is president of the University of Vermont, said he saw the decision as a strong victory for higher education. The court could have ruled strictly on technical grounds that Fisher didn't have standing, or ordered more hearings. Instead, he said, the court affirmed prior rulings on the value of diversity and also of the appropriate role for colleges in determining (within some limits) their admissions policies.

"This is a big win in terms of saying colleges should have some discretion," he said. At the same time, he noted that the decision continues to outline requirements (as past decisions have done) for colleges to meet before they use race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions.

Deference to Higher Education

A key part of the first Supreme Court ruling in Fisher was that colleges and universities were, as Sullivan noted, owed some deference on these issues. The earlier ruling limited that deference, and Justice Kennedy cited that limit. "No deference is owed when determining whether the use of race is narrowly tailored to achieve the university’s permissible goals," he noted.

But while that provision attracted considerable attention last time around, Kennedy stressed areas where colleges should in his opinion receive deference. He quoted from the earlier decision: "The decision to pursue ‘the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity’ … is, in substantial measure, an academic judgment to which some, but not complete, judicial deference is proper."

In this case, Kennedy also said that it was relevant that the University of Texas was acting under the percentage plan -- even if Fisher didn't challenge that -- and that the Texas Legislature imposed the percentage plan as a race-neutral way to promote some level of diversity. Justice Kennedy noted that without Fisher having challenged the plan, there wasn't a legal record on the plan itself.

"That legislative response, in turn, circumscribed the university’s discretion in crafting its admissions policy," Kennedy wrote. "These circumstances refute any criticism that the university did not make good-faith efforts to comply with the law."

While Kennedy strongly defended the constitutionality of the Texas admissions policies, he also stressed the obligations of the university (and presumably other colleges) to constantly evaluate whether they need to consider race and ethnicity to achieve diversity. Colleges, he said, must gather data on various strategies to promote diversity.

"As the university examines this data, it should remain mindful that diversity takes many forms. Formalistic racial classifications may sometimes fail to capture diversity in all of its dimensions and, when used in a divisive manner, could undermine the educational benefits the university values," the decision says. "Through regular evaluation of data and consideration of student experience, the university must tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest."

The Influence of Race

In his dissent, Justice Alito argued that in fact the university is doing what Kennedy would bar: making race the key factor in admissions.

"Although UT claims that race is but a 'factor of a factor of a factor of a factor,' UT acknowledges that 'race is the only one of [its] holistic factors that appears on the cover of every application,'" Alito wrote, quoting from depositions. "Consideration of race therefore pervades every aspect of UT’s admissions process."

Further, Alito questions why Latino applicants receive more of an edge in admissions than do Asian-American applicants, who also add to diversity. And he adds that the university's argument that it needs a "critical mass" of minority students is too vague to be a justification.

Alito argues that the majority is ignoring the earlier Fisher decision in not sufficiently questioning the university's arguments.

"The majority’s uncritical deference to UT’s self-serving claims blatantly contradicts our decision in the prior iteration of this very case, in which we faulted the Fifth Circuit for improperly 'deferring to the university’s good faith in its use of racial classifications,'" Alito writes. "As we emphasized just three years ago, our precedent 'ma[kes] clear that it is for the courts, not for university administrators, to ensure that' an admissions process is narrowly tailored."

It is possible that there will be further challenges to colleges' consideration of race. Parts of the decision do rest on unique factors at the University of Texas. But many critics and supporters of affirmative action expected this to be the case that might change things dramatically. For now, a legal battle that started in 2008 appears to be over.

Affirmative Action [11]


Source URL:












The Supreme Court on Affirmative Action in Higher Education

  • 1978: In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court ruled that the medical school at the University of California, Davis, could not reserve some slots with separate admissions standards for minority applicants. But the court also ruled that colleges could consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions in ways that did not create quotas.
  • 2003: In Gratz v. Bollinger, the court ruled that the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor had unconstitutionally used an undergraduate admissions system in which underrepresented minority applicants received points on the basis of their ethnic or racial background.
  • 2003: In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court ruled that the University of Michigan's law school was within its constitutional rights in considering applicants' race and ethnicity because it did so through a “holistic” review and not by simply awarding points based on race and ethnicity.
  • 2013: In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the court ruled that lower courts needed to apply “strict scrutiny” and not give colleges deference in reviews of challenges to the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

18th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum now up on YouTube

The 18th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum is now up on YouTube. 

We also have a link to the video on our journal's website.

The forum this year was a ten year retrospective of the controversies covered in the Journal of Educational Controversy as a celebration of the journal's tenth year anniversary.  Authors were there in person as well as on video.

Authors in Person:

          Maria Timmons Flores, Western Washington University  --- "The Plight of Undocumented Students in our Schools"
          Daniel Larner, Western Washington University ---  "Politicians as Playwrights"
          William Lyne, Western Washington University ---" Beautiful Losers"

Authors by Video:

          John Covaleskie, University of Oklahoma --- "Religion and Public Schools"
          Leslie Locke, University of Iowa and Dr. Ann Blankenship, University of Southern Mississippi –  "The Banning of the Mexican American Curriculum in Tucson, Arizona"


          Lorraine Kasprisin, Editor, Journal of Educational Controversy
          Kristen French, Director, Center for Education, Equity and Diversity


Center for Education, Equity and Diversity (CEED), Western Washington University
Thursday, April 21, 2016
4:00 - 6:00 pm

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Are Children Paying the Price for Trump’s Bigotry

In a Washington Post editorial this morning, “Mr. Trump’s rhetorical poison is trickling into America’s schools,” the Post reports on a disturbing survey that “suggest that innocent Americans, including children, may be paying a price for his bigotry.”  
To see the examples from the survey, go to the article at:

Monday, May 16, 2016

More on Grit: Author Ethan Ris Responds to Paul Thomas’ Post

Editor: We are continuing our conversation on the role of "grit" in educational discourse with author Ethan Ris’ response to the earlier post by Paul Thomas.

Response to Paul Thomas
By Ethan Ris

I am grateful for Paul Thomas’s thoughtful response to my article, and doubly grateful for the chance to respond. One of the wonderful things about the Journal of Educational Controversy is its commitment to ongoing conversations and the meaningful exchange of ideas – well beyond the unread citations that masquerade as scholarly dialogue in other publications.

Before I address Thomas’s critique, a word about where this article came from. This was a bit of a departure for me, since my primary work is on higher education. While researching a piece about the social construction of “non-cognitive” skills in college (recently published in History of Education), I found myself reading the works of Horatio Alger, Jr., the 19th century children’s book writer. Digging through his miserable prose, I was surprised to find an early version of the “grit” discourse that has figured prominently in pedagogical theory over the last five or so years.

As I explain in my article, Alger’s books (contrary to popular belief) were written for middle and upper-class children. They were about poor children, but not for them. Instead, they used striving street urchins and farm boys as virtuous exemplars of grit and tenacity. The message to privileged boys and girls was a simple one: compared to these kids, you are spoiled – and if you don’t shape up, they will eat your lunch. That warning was particularly potent in the late 19th century, a time of increasing income inequality, a burgeoning labor movement, and the rising specter of socialism.

While I was struck by the long legs of the grit discourse, I was also struck by how rarely its co-creators acknowledge its basis in worries about privileged children, a trend that continued throughout much of the 20th century. I argue that that oversight is equally true for both those who see grit theory as a panacea for the ails of low-income students, and for critics who argue that it is another form of victim-blaming, like cultural deficit theory.

Paul Thomas takes issue with my equivalency of the proponents and the critics, pointing out that my data and analysis strongly support the latter (among whom he counts himself) in their argument that the grit discourse punishes low-income children and students of color. He writes that there is “a direct relationship between ‘grit’ as a domain of the privileged and how that has created the context within which many in the U.S. assume black/brown and poor students lack that quality.” Privileged classes, he argues, perpetuate grit theory “because they need the wider public to believe that success is the result of effort (merit) and not the consequence of privilege.”

Thomas is on firm ground when he points out that I am reluctant to name grit theory as racist or even classist. My reason for this reluctance comes from my reading of the historical record, in which poor children are most frequently exemplars of grit in the eyes of elites. This is even true for contemporary authors who have fueled the grit frenzy – Paul Tough, for example, peppers his book How Children Succeed with humanistic case studies of gritty young people who have overcome the disadvantage of their poor, minority backgrounds in order to succeed academically. It is a short leap from Tough’s middle-class readers to the ones who gobbled up Horatio Alger’s tales of Ragged Dick and Paul the Peddler, seeing in them answers to their concerns about their own children.

For that reason, I can’t agree with Thomas’s claim that “‘grit’ is racist and classist because the narrative speaks to and perpetuates race and class stereotypes that black/brown and poor people are inherently lazy, deserving their stations in life.” I don’t believe that Angela Duckworth and other scholars who perpetuate grit theory directly contribute to that type of prejudice. While they make allusions to “closing the achievement gap” (which I read as a habitual shibboleth necessary to get grant funding), their research design indicates their true audience; as I have pointed out before, Duckworth’s most important samples are not low-income children but privileged groups like Ivy League undergraduates and advanced spelling bee contenders. As Daniel Engber writes, studying these high-achieving groups produces classic “restriction of range” bias, but for my purposes they represent exactly the types of young people for whom the grit discourse originated.

That said, I acknowledge and respect Thomas’s point that grit theory easily fits in to a longstanding racist narrative about the laziness of impoverished people, especially those of color. (I got a taste of that in the comments on a recent piece I wrote in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog.) While I disagree with critics who allege eugenicist motives for grit research, they are certainly on to something by highlighting the dangers of “cutting-edge” scientific research that lends legitimacy to age-old forms of prejudice and oppression.  And I am certainly sensitive to Thomas’s point that a reluctance to call racism by its name makes its eradication that much more difficult. Let me be clear: grit theory, in the wrong hands, fuels racism and classism. But I am more concerned about what happens when grit theory is in the right hands.

My article concludes on a note of dismay, with a description of how the grit discourse can harm young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. My study shows that the historical narrative has poor children serving as role models for privileged ones. This is different from impugning them as shiftless and unmotivated, but it is perhaps equally detrimental in its romanticization of hardship and its ploy of talking about success in terms of character, rather than structural advantage.

The difference between my critique of grit theory and Thomas’s critique strikes me as similar to the two ways to critique the “no excuses” model of schooling. One focus (with which I am most sympathetic) is on the interpretation of the model as rejecting macro-level “excuses” like residential segregation, income disparities, and the legacy of legalized discrimination as reasons for the academic achievement gap. Obviously, this willful neglect of structural hardship is troubling. The second set of critics, however, train their fire on the commonly stated rejection of “excuses” at the student level, which unfairly assumes that the real problem is that certain types of learners lack work ethic and blame others for their shortcomings.

Both critiques are valid, but they pursue two different demons. A similar dichotomy may be at play here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The “Grit” Argument Continues: Paul Thomas responds to Author Ethan Ris

Editor: In our anniversary issue of the journal, we published an article by Ethan Ris entitled, “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept.”  It continued both the conversation that we have been having in the journal and added also to the current debates found in a number of recent books on the topic.   Below, author Paul Thomas responds to Ris’ argument.

A Friendly Rebuttal to Ris on “Grit”
P.L. Thomas, Furman University
In his “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept,” Ethan W. Ris offers, I think, a rare and significant contribution to the scholarly discourse on “grit”—one that has been mostly uncritical.

 Powerfully, Ris presents a discourse analysis of “grit” with a historical lens and argues that “the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy” (p. 2).

Ris makes a strong case that Angela Duckworth and popular advocates of “grit” (such as journalist Paul Tough) have contributed to policies and practices aimed at mostly black/brown and poor populations of students, conceding “[t]he critics, however, are right that poor children are the inevitable losers of this game” (p. 10).

It is here, where Ris confronts both advocates and critics of “grit” that I want to offer a friendly rebuttal. 

Again, Ris’s discourse analysis and historical couching of the “grit” narrative are very important, but his argument that “grit” has been mostly an idealized character trait embraced by the privileged does not, as Ris suggests, discredit assertions “grit” is racist (and classist); in fact, Ris’s historical context proves “grit” is racist. 

Part of the problem here is Ris’s “[b]oth sides have the story wrong” (p. 2)—the both sides being:

To its champions, the concept of grit offers a solution to the intractable low performance in these schools: help the kids get grittier, and they can claw their way out of poverty (Tough, 2011; Tough, 2012; Rock Center, 2012; Lipman, 2013). To its skeptics, grit is at best an empty buzzword, at worst a Social Darwinist explanation for why poor communities remain poor – one that blames the victims of entrenched poverty, racism, or inferior schooling for character flaws that caused their own disadvantage (Shapiro, 2013; Thomas, 2013; Anderson, 2014; Isquith, 2014; Noguera & Kundu, 2014; Ravitch, 2014a; Snyder, 2014; Ravitch, 2015). (p. 2)

I am on the “skeptics” side that asserts “grit” as a narrative and as a character quality formal schooling needs to instill in black/brown and poor students is racist, but I see in Ris’s analysis a direct relationship between “grit” as a domain of the privileged and how that has created the context within which many in the U.S. assume black/brown and poor students lack that quality.

My rebuttal, then, revolves around “skeptics” being wrong because we agree wholeheartedly with one of Ris’s central argument: “Here, though, is the fundamental problem with the perception that the importance of grit has to do with bettering the chances of disadvantaged students. Children raised in poverty display ample amounts of grit every day, and they don’t need more of it in school” (p. 8).

 So I would like to pose that Ris has not proven “both sides are wrong,” but has failed to recognize why we skeptics have been calling out “grit” policies and practices.

 As Christopher Emdin explains in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, vulnerable populations of students are plenty “gritty,” but they remain the primary targets of “no excuses” schooling grounded in “grit” discourse and lessons.

Therefore, the formula to me (one made clear by Ris’s work) is that the privileged have historically promoted and continue to promote the “grit” narrative (the work ethic the working class has imposed on itself out of fear of not measuring up to the affluent)—and needlessly worry about the “grit” of their own children—because they need the wider public to believe that success is the result of effort (merit) and not the consequence of privilege.

So I agree with Ris that the “grit” narrative and “grit” as educational policy are tools to keep the class (and race) divisions in the U.S. intact—all of which confirms that “grit” is racist and classist because the narrative speaks to and perpetuates race and class stereotypes that black/brown and poor people are inherently lazy, deserving their stations in life.

Ris’s work is really important, and I would not have felt compelled to offer what may appear to be a minor quibble from someone labeled as “wrong” in Ris’s essay, but one of the ways in which privilege is maintained is our reluctance to name racism, our urge to find any other cause possible.

Duckworth, Tough, and the growing legions of advocates in the “grit” industry—these people are invested in “grit” and they are surely wrong.

We skeptics? I think we are making a case reinforced by Ris’s work, and I invite him to consider this carefully because I believe his work is crucial in reclaiming the value of effort and engagement for all children, but especially for vulnerable populations who are being mis-served by the “no excuses” and “grit” movements.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

18th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum: A 10 Year Anniversary Retrospective of Educational Controversies

18th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum

A 10 Year Retrospective of Educational Controversies: Come and Celebrate the Anniversary of the Journal of Educational Controversy

Thursday, April 21, 2016

4:00pm to 6:00pm

Western Washington University, Center for Education, Equity and Diversity (CEED) Miller Hall 005

The 18th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum will celebrate the anniversary of the 10th year of the Journal of Educational Controversy.  As part of the celebration and continued discussion, the Journal in collaboration with the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity will be hosting a retrospective look at the controversies covered over the past ten years of the Journal. Now in its 18th year, the forum will host authors who have contributed to the Journal and who will share their current thinking and research about some of our most pressing educational challenges. 

 Following the presentations, the audience will have opportunities to interact with the authors and share educational controversies that they would like to see as topics for future issues of the journal.  The audience is invited to think about the links between the past and the present pursuit of social justice in both the k-12 system as well as in higher education.  How can we articulate these issues in a way that brings greater depth to our understanding of the conflict of values and the complexity of ideas that characterize our pluralistic society, and that opens up new ways of imagining a more just, inclusive, and democratic educational environment for the future.

 Topics and presenters for this year’s forum include:

In Person:

 Dr. Maria Timmons Flores’ paper helped school professionals understand the experiences and challenges students who are undocumented face, and offered tangible roles schools can play in rethinking policies and practices to counter everyday injustices. The paper was informed by a legal context, current political realities, and critical race theory.

Dr. Daniel Larner co-edited the issue on the school-to-prison pipeline.  His papers covered conflicts over censorship, and the education of politicians as playwrights who can work with and through difference to construct civil laws and protections.

Dr. Bill Lyne’s paper, “Beautiful Losers” addressed the theme of our 2008 issue that asked how are we to “fulfill the traditional moral imperative of our schools to create a public capable of sustaining the life of a democracy . . . .in an age of the Patriot Act and similar antiterrorism legislation . . . all likely to involve violations of civil rights and liberties” by problematizing the question against the historical realities of our nation’s history.  Dr. Lyne is the co-editor of our upcoming issue on “Black Lives Matter and the Education Industrial Complex.”

 By Video:

 Dr. Alice Ginsberg – “No Excuses Charter Schools” and a critique of the film Waiting for Superman

 Dr. John Covaleskie – Religion and Public Schools

Dr. Leslie Locke and Dr. Ann Blankenship – The Banning of the Mexican American curriculum in Tucson, AZ.

 The forum is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

New "Call for Papers" on the Theme: "Black Lives Matter and the Education Industrial Complex"

The Journal of Educational Controversy announces a new "call for papers" for its 2017 issue:


Controversy Addressed:

Along with drawing attention to the police as occupying armies in Black American communities, the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the deep roots of institutionalized racism in the United States.  Starting with the fundamental question, Do Black Lives Matter in the U.S. Education Industrial Complex?,  this issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy seeks to explore the various questions raised by Black Lives Matter in relation to U.S.  educational institutions, policies, and practices as they impact men, women, and children of color intersectionally, with respect to gender, gender identity, and class.  These questions could include the status of schools as institutions of control and sites of reproduction of racist ideology; the possibility of schools as sites of liberationist  transformation; the institutional history of schools alongside the development of institutional racism; the institutional response of schools to incidents of racial violence; the history of black studies programs in relation to black liberation movements, and the appropriation and sanitizing of terms like diversity and multiculturalism.

Publication Date: 2017
Manuscripts Due: December 31, 2016

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

David Stovall to Speak at Western Washington University on “Justice Does Not Happen in a Vacuum: Race, Rights and the Possibility of Now”

As part of the Diversity Teach-Ins at Western Washington University, David Stovall will be speaking on “Justice Does not Happen in a Vacuum: Race, Rights and the Possibility of Now.”   The event will take place on March 8th in Fraser 102, 4-6pm, on the Western campus.     
 David Omotoso Stovall, Ph.D., is a professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

His talk is entitled, “Justice Does Not Happen in a Vacuum:  Race, Rights and the Possibility of Now.” He will be discussing state-sanctioned violence against Black communities (and other communities of color), situating contemporary youth movements within a context of community resistance to systems of racialized oppression and violence, ultimately urging educators and community leaders alike to move beyond tough talk.

The Journal of Educational Controversy is co-sponsoring the event along with the Woodring College of Education, Center for Education, Equity and Diversity, Education and Social Justice Minor, Associated Students Social Issues Resource Center, Ethnic Student Center, Diversity Fund, Office of the Provost, Academic Affairs, WCE Equity and Diversity Committee.

Watch for the journal’s next call for papers on “Black Lives Matter and the Education Industrial Complex.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Here’s What Exemplary Teacher Education Looks Like

Editor: With so many critiques of teacher education in the news, we would like to highlight an exemplary program that prepares future teachers here at our own college – the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.  We would like to thank Professor Lauren McClanahan for permission to share this video with our readers.  Lauren produced the video.

Creating Community-Whatcom Middle School Fall 2015 from Lauren McClanahan on Vimeo.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Interfaith Messages for the New Year

Welcome back to our blog for the New Year.  We start 2016 with a message from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, an organization that we have featured on our blog on different occasions.  Check out their resources and programs for teachers and principals at

Below Tanenbaum shares the wisdom from across the world’s faiths and beliefs to guide and ground us throughout 2016. 

African Indigenous Religions
It is not always physical bravery that counts. One must have the courage to face life as it is, to go through sorrows and always sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. African Traditional Religions Kipsigis Saying (Kenya)


Take pride not in love for yourselves but in love for your fellow-creatures. Glory not in love for your country, but in love for all mankind. Bahau’ullah, Tablets of Wisdom


Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) of great strength delight in reconciliation of conflict. Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti 8


All of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. 1 Peter 3:8


All you have to do is take this very heart here and apply it to what is over there. Hence one who extends his bounty can bring peace to the Four Seas; one who does not cannot bring peace even to his own family. Confucianism: Mencius I.A.7


What sort of religion can it be without compassion? You need to show compassion to all living beings. Compassion is the root of all religious faiths. Basasvanna, Vachana 247


A man once asked the Prophet what was the best thing in Islam, and the latter replied, “It is to feed the hungry and to give the greeting of peace both to those one knows and to those one does not know.” Hadith of Bukhari


Have benevolence toward all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the indolent and ill-behaved. Tattvartha Sutra 7.11


The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace. Talmud, Gittin 59b

Native American

Respect for all life is the foundation. The Great Law of Peace

Secular Humanism

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. Bertrand Russell, Russell-Einstein Manifesto


To be helpful to others and in the world at large through deeds of service without thought of rewards, and to seek the advancement of the world as one whose life mediates the will of Kami. Jinja Shinto Principle


Now is the gracious Lord’s ordinance promulgated, no one shall cause another pain or injury; all mankind shall live in peace together. Adi Granth, Sri Raga, M.5


Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love. Lao Tzu