Within the Ivory Towers: Managing Grief in Academia

I don’t really know how to start this post but I certainly feel the need to write it. Yesterday I learned that one of my best friends since the age of 13 passed away. He was one of those people who was just good. Better. And he never got a fair shot in life. He had been ill for quite some time, so while his passing is not a surprise, the sadness is the same.

It’s a similar sadness to what I felt when my grandfather passed away during my first semester of graduate school. I was not able to attend his funeral because there was a snow storm and my flight was canceled. My current state is a lightweight version of the extremely deep pain I felt (and continue to feel) when my brother passed during my fourth year of graduate school.

Friends and colleagues of mine have experienced similar grief, but I’m always particularly aware of grief when it happens within the rigid walls of academia.

To make a long story short, there is no space for grief in academia. With every loss, I felt a simultaneous anxiety around having to step away from my 1st year project, dissertation research, and first day of class. Some might say that I am using my work to distract from my grief and perhaps yes, that is true to an extent. But when I examine my pain more intensively, I know I am not avoiding my grief; I am saving it for after work hours. I also know that this pattern is in part, my need to continue forward because if I pause to cry at my desk, my sadness will overwhelm me.

I cannot afford that.

I cannot afford to appear weak. In graduate school, it was about proving my worth. I did not want my advisor or my committee to think I didn’t have the fortitude to do what needed to be done. One sign of weakness could be my exit point off the PhD highway. It may sound dramatic but it’s not. PhD students fight continuously for respect from faculty and sometimes, one another. I was a 21 year old first year PhD student who was accepted into the top program in the field on her first try straight out of undergrad. I was rare. I was black. And all eyes were on me.

While I did not share my grandfather’s passing with anyone in my program, I could not help but share my brother’s death. That grief could not be hidden so I had no choice but to leave for a bit. And I do mean a bit. I went home for about 5 days and then took a pre-planned vacation to Miami for 4 days. After that, I was back on the grind. I told myself it’s what my brother would’ve wanted (which is true. He wasn’t one for wallowing in things you can’t control), but it was more because I knew I couldn’t lose ground in my program.

The department knew what I was going through yet not a single person besides my advisor offered even a word of condolence. I was told they would send flowers to his funeral. They did not. I was not offered extensions on looming deadlines, nor did I receive an email of sympathy or even a clichéd line of encouragement. I was given nothing.

At 24 years old, struggling to complete a PhD I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, I didn’t have the emotional strength to fight that battle. I accepted their behaviors as par for the course and used it to strengthen my resolve to get the hell out of there ASAP. And I promised myself that if I ever became a professor, I would never treat my students or colleagues that way.

But ‘that way’ is the norm. As a faculty member now, I see colleagues experience grief and for the most part, they too suck it up and come to work as if nothing was amiss. Those rare few who take some time off are whispered about at faculty meetings. Words like ‘dramatic’ and ‘depressed’ and ‘absent’ are complemented by expressions of disdain and scorn. How dare they not be at the meeting? It’s been a month since his son died! It’s been THREE months since her partner died!! They should be back by now!!!

My campus has experienced a lot of loss in the last few months. Students and colleagues leaving Earth far too soon has made everyone emotionally vigilant. And while academia encourages us to create a student experience that engenders the happily educated image of a coed, the same cannot be said for faculty. While we create task forces to deal with ‘campus issues’ and hire third party firms to conduct research on the ‘campus climate’, where are the support groups, counseling sessions, and offers of leave for faculty? I cannot even request these things without appearing to be some depressed weirdo who can’t handle the challenges life throws because that is the culture of academia.

We academics are tough. We are committed. We are expected to approach our personal lives in the same informed and educated fashion we approach our profession. We should be well versed in grief and ensure we move through those stages properly—in our own time.

The divide between who I am as a human and who I am expected to be as a professor is awful. It makes me feel ashamed of the two tears that escape my guard and splash onto my desk. It makes me feel awkward when friends ask me if I’m okay and if they can give me a hug. My mind is saying ‘I shouldn’t need a hug’, but my heart is saying ‘yes, please’.

So to those who’ve offered hugs, sent emails, delivered a clichéd message of support, surreptitiously squeezed my hand, called, and made me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry, thank you. You make it possible for me to get out of bed and go to work and be the scholar academia forces me to be.






Common Core State Standards: Doomed to Fail?


A friend of mine asked me yesterday what my thoughts were about CCSS. Coincidentally, that is the topic of today’s Ed Policy class. Interestingly, I don’t have strong opinions about the standards themselves, but I do have thoughts about the implementation of this piece of policy. A lot of the information I include in this post is primarily from Chapter 7 of The School Reform Landscape by Christopher Tienken and Donald Orlich.

But first, let’s make something clear: CCSS are not curricula. These are standards that should be used to guide the development and execution of curriculum. The choice of curriculum still lies with LEAs (districts or individual schools/classrooms).

Okay, now that that is cleared up, let’s move on.

CCSS are interesting for a lot of reasons. Firstly, the creation of them is suspicious. Depending upon your source, you might hear that a team of teachers were recruited to create the standards. Or you may hear that textbook publishers bid for the opportunity to create the standards. Given the way our education system functions, I am inclined to believe the latter. What is clear is that CCSS were supported by an array of private and public entities including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Army, Business Roundtable and Achieve. I highly doubt any of these organizations sought experienced and effective K-12 teachers for their sage guidance.

Keeping in line with the Obama administration’s rhetoric, the theme of the CCSS is college readiness. More specifically, these standards are guided by 5 criteria:

  • Alignment with college and career expectations
  • Inclusion of rigorous content via higher order thinking skills
  • Built upon current state standards
  • Informed by top performing countries
  • Evidence or research-based

The standards are also purported to use inclusionary language and focus on 21st century skills—whatever those are. Perhaps most disconcerting for me is the fact that the standards don’t come with aligned assessments. Word on the street is that LEAs can create their own assessments while the DoE vets proposals from businesses who want to create an accompanying assessment. I don’t understand how we can get reliable data about the effectiveness of these standards when curricula and evaluation of the curricula are unique to school districts. With over 14,000 school districts in the country, we will have no idea how these standards are faring.

Which brings me to my largest issue with CCSS: validity and reliability. Any person who’s taken one measurement design course would have a stroke when thinking about the variability in implementation and evaluation of the CCSS. Quick review: validity basically answers the question does the measure assess what it is supposed to assess? And reliability answers the questions will I get similar results when I use this measure with similar people in different contexts?

Well, since there is no common measure of the CCSS the answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO. There is no way to ensure that the curriculum developed by LEAs will actually align with the standards. We don’t know if the pedagogical methods used to enact the curriculum are aligned with the standards. And most of all, because most people in public education have no idea what measurement design is, the assessments used to evaluate students’ attainment of the standards will likely be invalid and unreliable.

The authors of the book I reference allege that the standards were not piloted in any form. They assert that ‘opinions’ were the primary gauge of quality during the creation of these standards. If this is true, this is very concerning but not surprising. Opinion-based research ought to be the standard phrase in education, not evidence-based research.

My final concern with CCSS is the timeline. I find it amazing that these were released in 2010 and within a few months, you could purchase textbooks aligned with the CCSS. How on Earth did these people whip up textbooks so quickly? Makes me think they already knew the contents of the CCSS…

And the incentives for states to adopt CCSS were so high, they were basically financially coerced into acceptance. States could not apply for Race to the Top monies without indicating how their school reform efforts aligned with CCSS. The Obama administration further incentivized CCSS by telling states they could more flexibly enact portions of NCLB if they adopted CCSS. Needless to say, at present, 44 states, D.C. and 4 territories have adopted CCSS.

While it’s great we are moving toward uniformity (yes, I believe in more uniformity between and within states), I think we are moving way too fast. Given that the CCSS come with no curricula, no assessments and absolutely no training, classroom teachers have been given the weighty responsibility of figuring it out on their own. Better districts try to conduct workshops, but who is qualified to lead a workshop about a set of standards created behind closed doors by special interest groups? What we have are teachers working frantically during the school year to adapt their current curriculum and pedagogy to meet new standards. This will inevitably result in teachers completely ignoring the standards or doing a haphazard job of addressing them. We continue to lay down federal and state mandates without giving LEAs the support they need to adhere to them.

Like other educational policies in this country, we are putting the cart before the horse. As a pedagogue I understand the value in backward design, but sometimes it’s imperative we understand the how before we decide on the what.

The Perceived Failure of No Child Left Behind and Misplaced Accountability


I’m currently teaching an Education Policy course and this week the students are individually charged with finding readings and leading a 3 hour class session on a particular educational policy. Today we learned about No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This is perhaps one of the most influential education policies (joining the ranks of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—it is actually a reauthorization of this act) because NCLB marked a pivotal shift in the federal government’s role in U.S. public schools. Indeed, some scholars use NCLB as the indicator of a shift from categorical federalism to performance-based federalism.

The student leader began class with identifying the overall themes of NCLB and asked us to identify the positive effects it has had on public schools. I enjoyed this start to the conversation because given that we’ve failed to meet the January 2014 goal of 100% proficiency, NCLB is largely touted as a failed piece of legislation. But I disagree (to the surprise of some). The policy itself was not flawed. Nor was the thinking behind the policy. What failed was the implementation of the policy. What caused the failure was the lack of infrastructure to support its implementation. Who failed at providing that infrastructure were State Education Agencies (SEAs)—those constitutionally charged with managing our nation’s schools.

For those of you who’ve bought into the now common rhetoric of “NCLB is to blame for school failure”, I challenge you to compare NAEP data pre and post NCLB within an historical and economic lens and see if you can still ‘blame’ one piece of policy for the nation’s slipping global standing. I am not arguing as Diane Ravitch is prone to do that our nation’s schools are not failing. They are. We are. But I do not blame NCLB; I blame the systemic flaws across our social institutions for inciting and perpetuating inequities in education.

To make clear how I think NCLB affected school functioning and the more general conversation about education in the U.S., I provide some bullet points:

The good:

  • Set a precedent for bipartisan policy making
  • Secondary teachers must have a Bachelor’s degree in their content area
  • Data-driven instructional practices are now the norm
  • Increased awareness of the achievement gap between more than black and white students
  • Led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards through its emphasis on literacy, math, and science
  • Streamlined Title I categories so funding was more efficient
  • Partnerships between community organizations and public schools is more common
  • Forced districts to outsource some services (e.g., uniforms, food, transportation) into the private sector thus increasing the quality and economic efficiency of those services (i.e., the competition embedded in the private market yielded higher quality and lower costs—for broad scale support services, not academic services)

The almost good/not quite bad:

  • Increased services to ELL students

o   But we still don’t know the best way to get ELL students English proficient nor academic proficient. This just urged us to start strategic research.

  • Removed the mandate of neighborhood schools by allowing parents to switch schools if their school was labeled low performing for 2 consecutive years (a microcosm of school choice)

o   The parents of students who attend low performing schools are most often of color or low income. These parents are most likely to be least knowledgeable about such policies and if they are aware, they are least likely to have the life context that affords them the ability to capitalize on this ‘choice’. How do they get their child to said chosen school if there is no bus? How do they even know if their school is low performing? What are the other school options?

  • Recognized the importance of integrating technology into pedagogy

o   But we have teachers who have no pedagogical training so they do not know how to effectively use technology as more than a ‘fun’ activity

  • Created more school options for parents through charters and magnets

o   Similar to school choice, options are only options to the extent you can access them.

o   Charter schools are heavily critiqued for not being sustainable and for the difficulty in scaling up. This means that either students attend that special school until it closes in 2-3 years or only a select group of students via a lottery system can take advantage of this special school

  • Raised teacher/admin accountability

o   Phew! The wrong people are held accountable for the wrong things at the wrong time through the wrong mechanisms. (teachers/student scores/once a year/tests)

The ugly:

  • NCLB, instead of motivating success, has cultivated a fear of failure for teachers and students, resulting in decreased morale for education
  • The punitive measures outlined in NCLB (called ‘sanctions’) were far too public, thus forcing states to lower expectations for teacher quality and academic achievement to avoid being publicly shamed as ‘low performing’
  • Allowed SEAs to place responsibility for student achievement at the local level, almost solely on teachers when in fact, data suggests teachers are one of a dozen variables influential in student achievement

We ended the lesson with a brief exercise in which we stated if NCLB should be reauthorized again (President Obama reauthorized it in 2008—a year later than its intended reauthorization date). We all agreed that reauthorization should happen only if states are held accountable for creating the necessary infrastructure in which NCLB can be successful (e.g., raising teacher licensure requirements/getting rid of alternative licensure programs; providing equitable school funding; providing relevant and rigorous professional development opportunities; assessing teacher quality consistently and through multiple mechanisms; setting realistic academic goals with appropriate supports for schools; enforcing policies and enacting appropriate sanctions behind closed doors; etc).

But this is a pipe dream because the federal government has no ‘right’ to intervene in public schools and does not therefore have the authority to punish SEAs for noncompliance. For those of you calling for education reform, I urge you to make that call to the appropriate office—your state department of education.