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. 

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