July 3, 2014

Let's Go Crazy

As we enter the full swing of summer for most educators, I wanted to take some time to reflect on some of the conversations in which I have participated in online and in person this past academic year.  As someone who recently relocated as well as finished his dissertation, this year was a year of changes.  However there were some things that remained constant.

People in this country tend to live in boxes.  Not just the houses they inhabit, but mental boxes in which it is much easier, to simply see things that exist as either or propositions.  Either you are with me or you are against me.  Either you are black, or you are white.  Either you are female, or you are male.  This drives me nuts.

Having grown up in the complex world of Chicago – both in terms of race relations/neighborhood divisions, as well as politics, I tend to view the world from a lens of; “yeah, things are bad, they could be worse, now what?”  In other words, let’s get on with the business of doing the hard work of change and while not dismissing historical, structural and institutional ineptitude, bias, racism, sexism or the like, we need to figure out a way to move forward.  The direction we as human beings should be moving is forward. 

MLK being pelted with Rocks, Cicero, IL 1966
Let me be clear.  That is not to dismiss any of the social justices which occur, it is simply to say, how do we move forward from them?  In too many instances, in the academic arena, in social circles, and on social media, we are too quick to condemn.  Too quick to isolate, and too quick to judge.  In the immortal words of the great 20th century poet, T.A. Shakur  “only God can judge me.”  Further, what is the end result of judgment?  Especially if people are more often wrong than right?

So how does this ethos manifest itself?  There are many who criticize the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative as being 1) just for boys, 2) putting the onus on the young men as opposed to the structural inequalities which exists and 3) does not allow for minority community groups to engage in the grant process or contribute to the dialogue.  Let me state the obvious.  If dismantling systems and structures were so easy, we would have accomplished our goals decades, if not centuries ago.

What can we do? 

We can begin by trying to understand that if we are uplifting one group, it does not, and should not mean we are denigrating, denying or dismissing another.  We can do the much needed uplifting of young black males, and help them achieve positive social and academic outcomes.  We can also strive to dismantle the structures which have hampered that progress for decades.  We can highlight the inequities surrounding being black and male in this country, and in many urban education systems, while also helping to advance young women of color (Black, Latino and otherwise) who are struggling with their own issues in those same structures and systems.

In short we can do multiple things at once.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the doors to society have legally been open for all to walk through.  We all know too well that in the place of concrete doors, there have been erected invisible doors and walls, but too many spend too much time lamenting – “well they’re doing X, I want X too…” rather than saying, “good job, look at them doing their thing, I (we) need to do our thing too.”

Please do not confuse those statements with an oversimplification of structural and institutional inequity.  I get it.  Even those of you who give me the side eye, let me respond again, I get it.
Another example is the current discourse surrounding the President and his Education Secretary.  As people prepare to pack up and head to Washington DC for yet another “rally” or “protest march,” people need to understand politics 101.  If you want to achieve meaningful results or get something done, the last thing you need to do is agitate those in power to the point of insult.  Too many so called progressives have not learned the lessons of the past and are treating this Administration as if it were Romney or McCain sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  They’re not.  As such, insulting and name calling out people who you want to do something – e.g. reform education, should not be the normative behavior. We are all adults. We are all professionals. We should be able to have intelligent, engaging conversations, even disagreements, without resorting to simplistic name calling. 

So as we embark on this weekend celebrating our Nation’s birthday, let’s remember to treat each other in the way and through the kinds of actions we would like to be treated.  Even if we disagree. 

June 24, 2014

California Love

In the wake of the Vergara decision regarding teacher tenure, there has been an explosion of commentary both positive and negative. Some are ready to pour dirt on the entirety of teacher tenure.  Others see the decision as a slap in the face of teachers across the country and as another “nail in the coffin” for due process.  Of course, I see it through a third lens.

Back in 2005, which seems like a long time in terms of education policy/politics, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed on the November ballot an initiative called Proposition 74.  In short, that Proposition advanced the notion that, god forbid, teacher’s be given five years to receive tenure instead of the extremely short window of only two years.  At the time, in my own District, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), as well as the California Teachers Association all worked vehemently to defeat this proposition.  They felt it was a slap in face of, you guessed it, due process.  While at the same time people want to engage in historical amnesia concerning this Proposition, they are also failing to advance their own best interest.

If Prop. 74 had passed, both the public and the politicians would have seen the measure as a step in the right direction of teachers understanding the need for more rigor in the tenure process.  Oftentimes, both the perception and the reality is a war of attrition.  Sit in one spot for 2 years (with perhaps 2-3 walk-through's from administrators) and poof, you’re fully tenured.  I understand that there should be more to it, but oftentimes it is not. Let’s be clear, 95% or more of the teaching population is doing the right thing, but that 5% is anchoring us down.
I believe in acknowledging the hard work of teachers who show up for work every day, ready and able to fight the good fight and advocate for their students.  As I used to say when I was a high school classroom teacher, “its not the kids who (mess) up my day, it’s the adults.”  With that in mind let me direct my focus to the adults who insist on acting like the children they teach. Rather than engaging in the reflective discourse of what can be done to improve the profession, people have engaged in the dangerous slope of arguing in absolutes.  Either you agree with tenure or you don’t.  Of course, the “truth” lies somewhere in between both extremes.

Highlighting the FACT that there are an extremely small number of teachers who do not do right by their students is not an indictment on ALL teachers who are in the classroom.  Let me say it another way, if you do the right thing, participating in education groups on social media, grading papers, showing up to work early/leaving late, lobbying for better educational reforms, and in many cases raising your own children, no friend, I am not talking about you.  I am talking about those who languish in the darkness, or sometimes right in front of us, and insist on doing the bare minimum or worse. What is abhorrent is that we as the "good" ones do not shed light on those who need help, or assistance (see: No Snitching from 3-5-12)

It seems as if everyone has a story about a teacher - positively and negatively.  Let me highlight why I believe that teacher tenure needs significant reform.  Without going into great detail (to protect the guilty), a “colleague” of mine in South Central, earned his Ph.D online while he was supposed to be “teaching” his class.  Why does this matter?  Well for obvious reasons of doing ones job, but personally his students would come to my classroom crying begging to be in my already overcrowded class.  How could I say no? Real talk.  Is he an aberration? Absolutely.  But he's not alone. Let’s have an honest, truthful discussion. There may not be anyone as bold, or in my mind abusive, as he was, but there are folk who try to “get over” in every profession.  To deny otherwise is simply weakening our argument that this profession should be view as a top-tier profession.

So rather than continue to rant and point fingers, here are 4 things we can and should do to reclaim the tenure discourse:
  1. Increase the number of years from 2 years to 4 or 5 years.
  2. In addition to the administrators “observations,” there should be bi-annual meetings with a consortium of parents, teachers, students (if 6-12th grade) and other stakeholders.  Teaching is not just what you do in the classroom, it is how you affect and interact with the school community as well.
  3. There has to be some evidence of academic growth, either through Professional Development credits or attendance at academic conferences.
  4. As a part of tenure, the portfolio of the evaluation should include; a written component by the teacher, 2-3 letters of recommendation (including the department chair), a written evaluation by an administrator, and some sort of statistical evidence of student growth (not just test scores).
These are just a few of the ways teachers can “take back” the narrative surrounding teacher tenure.  K-12 tenure is not as rigorous a process as the tenure process at the higher education level, nor should it be.  But these four ideas help towards alleviating the misconception that once teachers receive tenure that they become like my former colleague, inept and lazy. 

June 6, 2014

Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever…A Change That Never Came

As my first post-doc post, I want to throw my hat into the ring regarding the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka KS (1954).  "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  Those words spoken by the newly inaugurated Governor Wallace of Alabama in 1963 could not ring more true today.  However, those who are...articulating a false narrative concerning “resegregation” or lamenting that charters or other school reforms equal the “new segregation” are misrepresenting history.

Let me be as explicit as I have ever been about anything…In regards to local public high schools, School segregation NEVER took place.  Let me say that again, school segregation, as intended by Brown NEVER took place in the United States of America.

What did happen?

In the North, and places where there is more than one local high school, we have seen very few instances of positive examples of integration in America.  What occurred is that in areas where school buildings were integrated, much of the population of White students were placed into honors or advanced placement courses and Black and Brown students were placed in remedial courses and vocational education courses.  From the early 1960s until it became a policy non grata, segregation within the school building was primarily done through tracking and other tactical means of keeping “those students” away from their white counterparts. 

Another example of what happened was that in the wake of Brown, especially in the cities with strong ethnic neighborhoods such as Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, white flight occurred.  The feeling was, you want to integrate the school, fine, I’m moving to the suburbs. In response, school districts tried to “force” integration by demanding students be bused from one school to another [see Eyes on the Prize volume 2 regarding South Boston v Roxbury, 1974].  This vain attempt to integrate schools beyond neighborhood boundaries was extremely problematic and even dangerous as the first and second wave of integration took place post-Brown. The resentment from this failed attempt could arguably be considered to still be prevalent today.

Why is this historical recollection important?  It is important, no, essential, because without the knowledge of the historical events which occurred in the wake of the historic Brown decision there is a tendency to fall prey to the false narrative that Brown integrated schools and even worse, that racial “progress” that was made in those years, has dissipated and we are now fraught with segregated schools, some worse than before the momentous decision.

I have argued that the Brown decision did more to integrate every other aspect of American life EXCEPT public education for a long time.  That statement is usually met with disdain or contempt.  But let’s look at the realities of our surroundings.  As long as we cannot force people to live in integrated communities, and as long as cities previously mentioned and others, want to insist on the antiquated notion of “local, neighborhood schools” we are going to be fraught with racial (and class) isolationism. 

Hence scholars and pundits who wish to use the term “resegregation” or segregation do so knowing it is a loaded term filled with visions of women and men spitting, hitting and cursing young Black boys and girls on their way to enter the school house gates.  It is a term which denotes racial animus, and legal and moral acceptance of the purposeful separation of the races.  It is a term which hearkens back to a day when people such as Ruby Bridges and others were constantly under death threats because of their social justice actions.  It is a term which has zero place in the discourse surrounding public education today, except in the context of trying to create hyperbole and misrepresent the current educational landscape. It is also grounded in the notion that segregation has been used as a mechanism of inequality, and that integration should not be the goal in and of itself.  Instead, we should aim towards dismantling the systems which have created racial and class-based inequality in too many areas of this country for decades if not centuries. Thus I cannot see how we, knowing the history, can continue to use this term to describe the current state of public education. 

In his work, Freeden Oeur who focuses on single-sex schools, notes that separation does not always equal segregation.  Further, it seems to me as if it those who insist on using the term to articulate today’s public school backdrop are using the term to incite the public into action.  The question is what action, and at what costs?

The way I see it, it is unfortunate that many progressives are coming from a position in which their implicit bias is that if it is Black (or Brown) it is wrong.  Very rarely is this notion is expressed explicitly , but usually this “truth” hides under the veil of progressive educators and scholars articulating a vision of creating a public school system which is equitable and just.  While these altruistic goals are highly desirable, to achieve them, one does not have to believe that simply by integrating public schools will solve all their ills.  While some research does demonstrate positive effects of school integration, and as one who went to a fairly integrated public school in Cambridge in the mid-1970s, I can attest that there is tremendous cultural and social capital gained from being raised in a diverse population.  In contrast, I also strongly believe that an all-Black, all-male, or all-Latino environment can also achieve positive academic gains for their students.  Thus the question remains whether or not we are arguing the need to dismantle the 2nd wave or segregation based on race or class?

It is duplicitous and disingenuous to lay the “blame” on charter schools or other schools of choice as being “resegregated” when we should not only look at the racial and socio-economic make-up of the neighborhoods in which they reside, but also their academic outcomes.  Are they graduating their students and sending them to college?  Are they providing them with opportunities to engage in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities that allow them to be exposed to things that are not the “normative” behavior in their neighborhoods?  Are these students allowed to travel both around the country and the globe to see how others live?  In short, are they allowed to break out of the dominant paradigm and low expectations placed upon them because of their race, SES, gender or other bias?  We need to shift this discussion from the pervasive negative, deficit lens to one of a more positive lens. 

In short, the discourse should not focus exclusively on a schools racial disposition (although I do understand that "urban" equals less than in terms of funding), but rather how can we make ALL schools, regardless of their structures economically viable, safe, trustworthy, highly engaging, high expectations based and outcome centers of positive academic and social learning?  

May 14, 2014

Failure as Fuel for the Fire

What could have been:  A speech I submitted to the College of Education for consideration for the Graduate Student Keynote Speech...
Needless to say I wasn't accepted.  I've heard one should never let a good speech go to waste so here it goes...
Thank you President Theobold, Dean Anderson, and distinguished Faculty of the College of Education. It is an honor to be the graduate keynote speaker for the College of Education.  Let me begin by acknowledging a few people, for whom if it were not for their assistance, guidance and support, I would never have made it this far.  The original, OG Doctor Rhoden, my mom.  As they say, the duplicate is never as good as the blueprint. I intend to do my best to honor and uphold the dignity and scholarship of the “family business.” I would also like to thank my Dissertation Committee, which covered three departments and two colleges and helped to guide my intellectual and emotional push towards successful completion.  Without their encouragement, both in person and long distance via e-mail, and Skype, I would not be standing here. Finally, I would like to thank my family and friends, and of course, my wife and son, who perhaps one day might be standing here before such an audience.

I would like to focus my remarks around utilizing failure as fuel and motivation.  From middle school on, I wanted to be a lawyer. I read about law, interned at a law firm, and of course, watched every law movie and TV show out there. Fortunately, in my educational background, I never experienced what I colloquially called a “Malcolm X moment” in which, to paraphrase, his teacher told him that he should not aim so high.  My teachers, family and friends all encouraged me to achieve my intended goal.  Of course, standing here today with an educational doctorate, we know that that dream did not happen…yet??  Instead, my intellectual journey was eventually driven, albeit in a crisscrossing, bi-coastal long strange trip, towards urban education.

The greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jeffery Jordan is quoted as saying “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something.  But I cannot accept not trying…Fear is an illusion.”  Everyone sitting in this audience today understands failure and fear.  Unfortunately in the current microwave society we live in, failure is magnified and fear is unspoken. Rather than being a blip on an overall trajectory of positive outcomes, our failures and foibles are retweeted, shared and posted on social media.
One of the key findings from my dissertation is that trust is essential to building resilience. This is vital in helping to counteract fear of failure. We feel immense pressure to be perfect, to not make a mistake, to hold back our true thoughts for fear of offending someone.  If anyone knows me, they know that I’m not afraid of offending anyone.  Not deliberately or maliciously, unless the person opposite me is a New York sports fan, but rather, I seek to engage in meaningful, respectful discussions about controversial issues.  I trust that the dialogue will help advance our knowledge, even if it is sometimes painful. We have to not be afraid to be wrong.  We cannot be afraid to be afraid.  And most importantly as educators, we cannot be afraid of both engaging in uncomfortable discourse and in saying, humbly, “I do not know.” 

As I was writing my dissertation in local coffee shops around both Philadelphia and Phoenix, and let me give a shout out to local coffee shops, I would sometimes be overcome by the magnitude of what I was writing.  Was I honoring the Black male students I interviewed, or just my own educational experiences?  Was I telling their truth or interpreting, or rather misinterpreting their truth through some distorted lens of educational privilege?  Were my conclusions really what I saw, or was my analysis somehow flawed?  All of these negative thoughts, and a few others that I cannot say in a family environment, weighed heavily on my shoulders trying to push me to open Facebook and procrastinate.  Two other important findings from my dissertation are that it is critical to seek out assistance from peers and mentors, and that understanding the connection between socio-emotional, racial and gender identity is extremely important to positive academic outcomes.

My fear of failure, and of not finishing, fueled me towards being, arguably, as focused as I have ever been concerning an intellectual goal.  Thankfully, whenever the inevitable self-doubt and fear crept into my psyche, I had a longstanding support network to lift me up. And that, is indispensable.  I know a lot of quantitative people who looked at my college GPA, or GRE scores and determined “unequivocally” that I would not succeed, nor should I even be in education. Without my network and, of course, the folk at Temple who saw beyond my abysmal numbers and instead saw my intellectual potential, even when I had self-doubt, who knows what I would have become. No doubt, not a lawyer, and not an academic.

So what does failure as fuel mean?  As we embark upon our next journey, for the undergrads, perhaps into grad school, and for us grad school graduates out into academia or the harsh realities of the world as it is, I am reminded of the words of Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC talk show host, and Professor at Tulane University. In a commencement speech at Wellesley College in 2013, she said; “Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life’s hard classes.  Remember to keep forming hypotheses and gathering data.  Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious…”
Nelson Mandela eloquently concluded after 27 years of physical imprisonment mostly on Robben Island, that; “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  The brave (wo)man is not (s)he who does not feel afraid, but (s)he who conquers that fear.”

Let us all go forth, not in absence of fear, but with that fear as a blanket to be used as a fuel to guide us towards making positive social change.  Not for our own financial or professional benefit, but for the honor of using our education to assist in the service of others and in seeking to reduce the educational inequities that exist in this country and elsewhere.

Thank you.  

May 7, 2014

Guns Don’t Kill People, Bullets Do…

As I stated last week, Teach for America can be considered a piece of low hanging fruit in the discourse surrounding their role in public education.  This week, I’m aiming my sights on another piece of progressive rhetoric, poverty.

In their book of the same title, Howard, Dresser and Dunklee (2009) noted that “poverty is not a learning disability.”  It seems as if progressives, in particular progressive teachers working in low income, urban areas have increasingly wanted to condemn their students because of their parent’s socio-economic status.  This is the epitome of the type of deficit thinking that has permeated public education for the last few decades. Incidentally, I would attribute the increase in this type of thinking to several things. The main elephant in the room in American public discourse is that it is much easier to discuss issues in terms of economics versus race.  However there is an interconnectedness that cannot be uncoupled when it comes to public education, particularly in urban areas (which is another example of us being uncomfortable with race – “urban” more often than not equals “Black and Latino”).  Thus liberals and progressives find it easier to frame the discussion as one of economic neglect rather than racial inequality.  This is problematic.  It is even more so because of the increasing lack of diversity in terms of the teacher population.

Without going too Stephen A. Smith on folk, we have a race problem, not a poverty problem when it comes to public education.  (In best Stephen A. voice) There I said it.

As the teaching population ages, those teachers who mirrored the communities in which they taught are retiring.  As Time Magazine recently reported, one in six teachers are teachers of color.  For some of us who have been in public schools and in teacher training arenas, this is a duh moment.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with white teachers teaching black children, and children of color, what is cause for concern is how they are teaching them and what kinds of expectations they hold for those children who look different from them.  While I do not have empirical evidence, I would strongly hypothesize that there is a correlation between white progressive thought centered on the “woe is them, those kids” mentality versus the retiring black teachers who came from the community and knew how to balance tough love with reality of their students’ surroundings. Let me be clear, this is not 100%.  There are a silent number of black teachers who also held (hold) a deficit thinking mentality towards their minority students, but the preponderance of them do not.  Equally valid are the small number of white teachers who hold minority students to high standards regardless of their parent’s economic or social status.

In another recent study, Nikole Hannah-Jones from ProPublica found that there is (in her words) a “resegregation” of America’s schools.  As someone who has studied the landmark Brown v Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision for years, and has taught the case in AP US Government class, I can attest that desegregation, in urban areas never occurred.  As late as the 1990s there were court cases in the north seeking to racially balance public schools (see: New York Times). What Brown did accomplish was that, in places where there were one or two public school options, especially high schools, they became “integrated.”  However, segregation still took place inside the school walls with white students and higher SES students being “tracked” into one type of academic coursework and those students of color and poorer SES students being tracked into another.  Thus economic and racial inequality in public schools has existed as a unspoken reality for far too many educators unwilling, or unwanting to articulate what was in plain sight, for decades. 

Remember the Titans 2000, Buena Vista Pictures
In an interview with Democracy Now, Hannah-Jones articulated that black and minority students tend to be in schools where they are receiving an “inferior education” based on their lack of rigorous curriculum, unequal access to Advanced Placement courses, and high number of inexperienced teachers.  Thus the notion of “separate but equal” is still par for the course.  What is interesting is that Hannah-Jones articulates this through the lens of comprehensive public schools and not charters.  So the question is can charters contribute positively to level the playing field and reduce the differentiation in educational opportunities for minority students versus their white counterparts?

What is…insidious in the underlying insinuation of this question and of the overall tone concerning the use of such terms as “resegregation” or worse “apartheid schools” (more on that in a minute) is that it perpetuates the problematic tome of “if it’s white it’s right, if it’s black, it’s whack.”

Hannah-Jones highlights important points concerning rural and small town areas in which there is great possibility to increase racial equity in public schooling.  However, in large urban areas there is another factor which contributes to racial inequity in public schooling, housing.  In many of my graduate classes, I received the side eye from not just professors but colleagues as well when I proposed that perhaps it is time to open up enrollment citywide for all urban public schools.  What this idea has the potential to do is to try to diversify schools in a more equitable manner.  What we cannot do is legislate where people can and cannot live.

Finally, the new buzz word around trying to discredit charter schools, is the argument focusing on them being “apartheid schools”- meaning they have over 90% minority enrollment.  I’m sorry, but if you examine ANY urban area, there is a strong stench of “apartheid” in every type of public school imaginable, perhaps save for magnet schools.  Why single out charters?  Here’s why…

People are pontificating about “silver bullets.”  There is no such thing as a silver bullet, not for the Lone Ranger, not for a sports team, not for a city, and definitely not for a public education fraught with as many moving parts, and as many localities as we have in this country.  PERIOD.  Stop trying to find one.

So in short: Poverty is not destiny, stop looking for silver bullets, stop looking at economic inequity without coupling it with racial inequality, and let’s move towards ways to increase positive academic and social outcomes for minority students -especially in all minority settings, rather than trying to single them out as being in “apartheid” conditions or worse.