“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Evidence Must Trump Idealism: A Reader

Many of us are compelled by idealism, and I certainly entered education as a career over 30 years ago because of my faith in the power of learning (specifically literacy), especially as it has enriched my own life.

But evidence must trump idealism, or we are destined to remain trapped in the corrosive patterns of inequity that keep us from achieving the American Dream.

As disheartening as the facts are, poverty is destiny, education is not the great equalizer, and the U.S. is not a post-racial society.

I’m sorry, but these are the realities as we have them in the U.S. as of 2014.

Before you shoot the messenger, however, let me encourage you to spend some time with the following:

Once we face what the evidence shows, then we become equipped with the foundation upon which we can work to build toward those ideals that must matter among a free people.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided world-views.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?”

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relived of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and phycially that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.

Aren’t All Children Equally Deserving?

A common practice for introducing students to the ethical foundation of philosophy is to pose moral dilemmas, possibly the most typical example being the life-boat dilemma that forces a person to choose who lives, and thus who dies.

Science fiction (SF) and speculative fiction often build entire other worlds in which the given circumstances create a series of moral dilemmas that are the basis of the tensions and actions of the novels and films. Writers such as Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle, for example) often build these worlds in the tradition of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as a way to say, as Neil Gaiman explains about the power of fiction: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the possible other world is one of scarcity, and by the end, the moral dilemma revolves around the fate of a child. The novel’s given, readers must accept, creates the narrow range of choices the characters face; that is part of the power of SF/speculative fiction.

Pulling back, however, from created other worlds, we are faced continually with moral dilemmas—often ones also involving children.

One such dilemma is how any society governs it schools. Confronting that dilemma in the UK, Polly Toynbee exposes dynamics that sound all too familiar in the U.S.:

Most people, right or left, would be alarmed at a trajectory of ever-worsening inequality. But few know the facts, wildly underestimating widening wealth gaps, still thinking Britain quite meritocratic. This ends the myth of modern classlessness, exposing shrinking mobility. The ladder up is so high and steep few can climb it – while those at the top exert all their power to stop their children falling down.

Citizens and institutions in both the UK and the U.S. are confronted by some troubling moral dilemmas: the rise of inequity in the wider society and the inability of public schools to overcome (as well as perpetuating) that inequity.

While debates often focus on the exact relationship between a meritocracy and its schools (a sort of “which comes first,” “chicken and egg” debate), an ethical decision about children seems to be ignored: To the question “Aren’t all children equally deserving?” the consensus in the U.S. appears to be “No.”

Education reform built on changing standards and high-stakes tests, weeding out “bad” teachers, funding the expansion of charter schools and Teach for America corp members, and retaining third graders based on their test scores is a concession to a fabricated moral dilemma. In other words, some children are more deserving (the standard among reformers is “grit,” by the way) because the reformers have conceded to a fatalistic scarcity that serves the advantages of the privileged, but leaves the middle class, the working class, the working poor, and the impoverished to fight among themselves for the scraps left behind.

Education reform in the U.S. is The Hunger Games.

Arthur H. Camins has identified the ugliest concession of them all in education reform as the Hunger Games, collateral damage:

“Whatever it takes,” is a dangerous philosophy because it tends to justify “collateral damage” in the guise of doing good things for children.  It excuses increased segregation wrought by school choice policies. It excuses flawed metrics in teacher evaluation.  It excuses the disruptions caused by open and closing of schools.  It excuses decreased instructional time for science, social studies and the arts.  It avoids exploration of meaningful debate about ideas and evidence.  It dismisses all of these consequences with the glib phrase, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as if there were no alternative strategies available for improvement.  It is, I think, a calculated avoidance strategy that develops when leaders feel under siege and run out of ways to deflect valid criticism.  In the end it is a profoundly undemocratic stance.

And what given have the privileged leaders in the U.S. embraced to justify allowing all their children to remain deserving while “other people’s children” have to fight it out to show who among them are more deserving? Competition and concessions to scarcity.

However, competition and concessions to scarcity are choices, not inevitable conditions in the U.S.

As Michael B. Katz explains in The Undeserving Poor:

Poverty is deeply rooted [in the US]. Before the twentieth century, the nation lacked both the economic surplus and policy tools to eradicate it; all that could be hoped for was to ameliorate the condition of the poor by keeping them from perishing from starvation, wretched housing, and disease. The situation began to change in the twentieth century with what one historian has called the “discovery of abundance” and with increasingly sophisticated methods for transferring income, delivering services, and providing essentials of a decent life. For about a decade, this combination of abundance and method backed by popular support and political will worked spectacularly well. Since then, poverty has been allowed to grow once again, not, it must be emphasized, as the inevitable consequence of government impotence or economic scarcity, but of political will. (p. xi)

When political leaders and self-appointed education reformers point to U.S. public schools reduced to life-boats and demand that we continue to choose which children are deserving and which children are not, instead of playing the moral dilemma game they are handing us, we must begin to point back at the ship wreck they have created and concedes only this: all children are equally deserving.

Closing Gaps?: Addressing Privilege and Poverty

With the release of her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch continues to identify the failures of education reform, exemplified by the charter school movement.

As the evidence mounts discrediting much of the movement, and more of the public discourse recognizes that evidence, we may be poised for rethinking education reform.

If current reform commitments are misguided, then what are our alternatives? Broadly, new ways of thinking about public education must occur before the U.S. can fulfill its obligation to the promise of universal public schools:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words, achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

One aspect of these new ways of thinking about public education that is rarely discussed is that seeking laudable goals (such as closing the achievement gap in schools and the income and upward mobility gaps in society) requires that we address both privilege and poverty—the top and the bottom. Historically and currently, our gaze remains almost exclusively on the bottom.

Richard Reeves in the “The Glass-Floor Problem” poses a provocative and necessary admission about the polar ends of class in the U.S.:

When it comes to the economic malaise facing America, the biggest problem is not the widening gap between rich and poor, but the stagnation of social mobility. When the income gap of one generation becomes an opportunity gap for the next, inequality hardens into social stratification….

These solutions may sound easy, but they are not. While politicians discuss social mobility as a pain-free goal, the unspoken, uncomfortable truth is that relative mobility is a zero-sum game. Opening more doors to applicants from low-income backgrounds often means closing more doors to affluent applicants.

This is delicate territory. Nobody wants parents to stop trying hard for their children. But nor do we want a society in which the social market is rigged in favor of those born into affluence. If we want a competitive economy and an open society, we need the best and brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.

In other words, the declining social mobility in the U.S. includes not only that those at the bottom are victims of poverty being destiny, but also that those at the top are reaping the benefit of privilege being destiny. In both extremes, then, the ideal of a U.S. meritocracy is negated.

Beneath simplistic claims that higher educational attainment (effort) is rewarded with greater income potential lie the ugly truth that poverty blocks children from high-quality educational opportunities while privilege insures better schools, advanced degrees, and access to jobs linked to the networking of privilege.

The lives of adults in the U.S. are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege—and not by the character or tenacity of any individual.

That fact is the basis for the needed new ways of thinking about education posed above.

One example of thinking differently about education is Ravitch, who explains that school-only reform over the past three decades is essentially a “mistake”; instead, social reform must come first so that school reform can work:

And income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.

We should do what works to strengthen our schools: Provide universal early childhood education (the U.S. ranks 24th among 45 nations, according to the Economist); make sure poor women get good prenatal care so their babies are healthy (we are 131st among 185 nations surveyed, according to the March of Dimes and the United Nations); reduce class size (to fewer than 20 students) in schools where students are struggling; insist that all schools have an excellent curriculum that includes the arts and daily physical education, as well as history, civics, science, mathematics and foreign languages; ensure that the schools attended by poor children have guidance counselors, libraries and librarians, social workers, psychologists, after-school programs and summer programs.

Schools should abandon the use of annual standardized tests; we are the only nation that spends billions testing every child every year. We need high standards for those who enter teaching, and we need to trust them as professionals and let them teach and write their own tests to determine what their students have learned and what extra help they need.

Annie Murphy Paul also challenges the in-school only focus on seeking ways to close gaps, shifting away from schools and into the home:

When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.

While Paul’s challenge pulls us one step back from school-only reform, this doesn’t go quite far enough (and stumbles if her argument is interpreted as “blame the parents”)—especially in the last comment quoted above. From Paul’s argument, we must ask ourselves why affluent parents and impoverished parents appear to parent differently.

“Laissez-faire” is a dangerous and potentially ugly word here.

Impoverished adults are not in poverty primarily due to laziness. Impoverished children do not score poorly on standardized tests because their parents do not care about school or are too lazy to parent properly (read: as affluent parents do).

Poverty is a social dynamic that does not allow people to behave in ways that we view as effective or productive. Privilege is a social dynamic that allows people to behave in ways that we mistakenly suggest is grounded in those people’s superior character.

Just as the achievement gap in schools is a marker for the equity gap in society, parenting style differences are reflections of the social dynamics experienced by those parents.

An affluent family with one parent staying home to support the children is allowed to behave in ways that an impoverished single parent working two part-time jobs (with no retirement or healthcare) cannot.

Privilege is a safety net, poverty is a prison.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge both privilege and poverty if we genuinely wish to close gaps in society and schools. Just as Reeves warns, however, recognizing that both privilege and poverty are unfair calls into question the advantages of children born into affluence.

It seems important that we ask as a culture some foundational questions:

  • Is ending the momentum of privilege “taking something away” from a child?
  • Is ending the momentum of poverty “giving something for free” to a child?
  • What are the foundational promises a country must make to insure the human dignity all people deserve, and expressed in that country’s foundational documents (in the U.S., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)?

These questions can only be answered and then acted upon if we make one additional change to how we think—in the larger scale (not in the schools, not in the home, but in society), how we think about the relationship between the Commons (publicly-funded institutions) and the free market.

The free market, we must admit, is amoral; the free market is Social Darwinism: competition produces losers and winners, not equity.

The Commons are potentially the collective ethics of a people.

And finally, then, in order for a free market to work for the common good, the Commons must be primary in the commitment of any people.

The Commons are the foundation upon which the market can do good.

As long as the U.S. views the Commons and the Market as an either/or proposition, and as long as the U.S. prefers the Market, privilege and poverty will continue to be destiny for our children. And for us all.

Let’s go back now to the second new way of viewing public schools from the beginning—reframed within a primary commitment to the Commons:

  • Public education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change as long as social inequity remains and as long as those public schools perpetuate those social inequities.

If we commit to social reform and education reform seeking equity and opportunity, then my first claim at the beginning will be proven wrong.

Here’s to my being wrong.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

“The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” begins a poem by Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America. A careful reading notices “gold bracelets,” suggesting more than affluence, opulence. The poem continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

The two women speak interchangeably about the fired domestic worker and the vase, both reduced to “one,” and “worked” is repeated about only the broken vase, an object for decoration and a Christmas gift. “It” and “colors” also haunt the conversation. In this brief poetic scene, the callousness of two affluent women about the value of an ornament over a worker (one who apparently is not a native speaker of English, and as suggested by the Spanish/English versions of all the poems and title of the collection, likely Latino/a) is couched in a larger context found in the poem’s title, “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator.”

This flippant conversation is overheard by another worker, a janitor (who do you see as the “janitor”?), standing essentially unseen, unacknowledged beside these women (who do you see as these women?), trapped momentarily in an elevator.

Kingsolver’s stark and vivid poem captures, as does Kingsolver’s entire collection, the existence of two Americas, a slogan trivialized by politicians and ignored like the janitor by much of the public in the U.S.

The two Americas include the few and affluent, mostly white, who have virtually all the power and, as the poem shows, a voice in the nation and the remaining many, disproportionately middle-class, working-class, working poor, and poor as well as African American and, increasingly, Latino/a.

Let’s consider for a moment what students may be asked to do if presented with this poem in a public high school in the U.S., specifically in this expanding era of accountability and the encroaching specter of Common Core and the concurrent new high-stakes tests.

Based on my having been an educator during the entire past thirty years of the accountability era, I would suggest that this poem would be reduced to mechanistic analysis, in much the same way we have treated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for decades.

While many are rightfully concerned that the Common Core will significantly decrease the focus on fiction and poetry in schools, we have yet to address that even if we maintain great poetry and fiction in the education of our children, we do them or that literature little service to allow those works to be reduced only to their literary parts, mere interchangeable fodder for identifying lination, stanzas, diction, symbolism, narration, characterization, setting, and the endless nuts and bolts deemed worthy of dispassionate analysis in school.

How many generations of students, for example, have examined at length the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and Gatsby’ yellow car? How many students have been guided through the technical precision of Fitzgerald’s novel while never confronting his vivid challenge to the American Dream?

Have students been asked to look carefully at the corpses of Myrtle and George (the wrong kind of people, George a mere worker and Myrtle left like roadkill in the middle of the road) as well as Gatsby (the wrong kind of rich) floating dead in his pool? Have students been asked why Tom and Daisy (the right kind of rich) go on vacation in the wake of these deaths, seemingly untarnished because of the Teflon coating of their affluence?

Have students been asked to consider carefully why Tom hits Myrtle but bends to Daisy’s taunts?

These are distinctions of analysis—suggesting that Common Core and curriculum are trivial debates if we do not address what happens in the classroom and for whom.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

The technical approach to literature that ignores critical literacy is a subset of the larger technical debate about education and education reform that focuses policy and public attention on the details of schooling (public versus charter and private, Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added methods of evaluating teachers) and ignores the substance of schooling like a janitor trapped in an elevator with two wealthy women.

The substance of schooling today is a stark contrast to the moment of cultural consciousness stretching from the early 1950s into the 1970s when separate but equal was confronted and rejected. As society in the U.S. wrestled with integration of institutions, the cancer of segregation was merely shifted from separate schools to schools-within-schools: White and affluent students tend to sit in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes with experienced and qualified teachers and low student-teacher ratios while AA/ Latino/a and impoverished students tend to sit in remedial, test-prep, and tech-prep classes with new and unqualified teachers (in the twenty-first century that means often Teach for America recruits as temporary workers) and high student-teacher ratios.

In-school segregation has been driven by affluent parents, who use their privilege to insure that their children get theirs, and damn the rest. But segregation by design has now been joined by two powerful and corrosive mechanisms—charter schools and segregated higher education access.

Charter schools (see Charter Schools: A Primer and Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity) have failed to achieve the academic miracles proponents have promised, but charter schools have exposed the most predictable outcome of choice, segregation. As Sarah Carr has shown, New Orleans is a disturbing record of the charter schools flood, the role disaster capitalism plays in destroying equity and opportunity for “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” African Americans and people trapped in poverty.

While schools-within-schools and charter schools highlight K-12 segregation by design in the U.S., as troubling is the entrenched privilege of affluence found in higher education, augmenting Matt Bruenig’s conclusion: “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”

Carnevale and Strohl have identified the separate and unequal access to higher education that constitutes the full picture of segregation by design in the U.S.:

The postsecondary system mimics the racial inequality it inherits from the K-12 education system, then magnifies and projects that inequality into the labor market and society at large….

Whites have captured most of the enrollment growth at the 468 most selective and well-funded four-year colleges, while African Americans and Hispanics have captured most of the enrollment growth at the increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced open-access two- and four-year colleges….

These racially polarized enrollment flows have led to an increasing overrepresentation of whites at the 468 most selective four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges…. (Executive Summary, pp. 3, 6, 10, 12)

The inequitable access to elite higher education mirrors the inequitable access to quality K-12 education and to experienced and qualified teachers. Inequitable access, then, creates inequitable outcomes:

[H]igh-scoring African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to drop out of college before completing a credential….

Among high-scoring students who attend college, whites are far more likely to complete a BA or higher compared to African Americans or Hispanics….

Each year, there are 111,000 high-scoring African-American and Hispanic students who either do not attend college or don’t graduate.

About 62,000 of these students come from the bottom half of the family income distribution….

Racial inequality in the educational system, paired with low social and economic mobility in the United States, produces enormous differences in educational outcomes: Whites are twice as likely as African Americans and three times as likely as Hispanics to complete a BA or higher…. (Carnevale and Strohl, 2013, Executive Summary, pp. 24, 26, 28, 37)

Despite the meritocracy myth at the heart of the American Dream, then, Carnevale and Strohl conclude: “In the United States, parents’ education determines the educational attainment of their children” (Executive Summary, p. 38).

The cruel irony of education in the U.S. includes that most privileged children will find themselves in classrooms where color imagery (the gold bracelet in Kingsolver’s poem, the green dock light and yellow car in The Great Gatsby) will be the key to the already unlocked door leading to college and secure, high-paying jobs while AA and Latino/a as well as impoverished students are shown quite a different door.

All the while, the colors that matter—black, brown, white, and green—remain invisible and unspoken under the veneer of the American Dream of meritocracy that is less credible than any work of fiction soon to be dropped from the school day.

Middle-Class Fear: Disaster Capitalism and the Threat of Poverty

Toward the end of HBO’s documentary American Winter, Brandon is finally offered a job after viewers have watched him and his wife Pam struggle against Brandon losing his job, resulting in their being unable to pay their rent and having to live with Pam’s mother.

When Brandon is told he has the job, his new boss notes Brandon is overqualified, but Brandon eagerly explains that he is thankful for the work and committed to do whatever he can to be a good worker—despite the cut in pay and drop in job status not in his plans as a young man and husband seeking the American Dream.

In a May Experience course (a three-week mini-semester after the traditional academic calendar at my university) built on education documentaries and confronting the connection between education and poverty, two of the most powerful films include HBO documentaries—Hard Times at Douglass High and Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Just as these works rise above the generally poor examinations of education found among education documentaries, American Winter is another HBO success, a thoughtful and confrontational exploration of poverty against the backdrop of the American Dream as it is being tarnished by disaster capitalism [1].

The scene above with Brandon and a few other aspects of the documentary give me pause, but first, I want to highlight how the film overwhelmingly succeeds.

The place of American Winter is Portland, Oregon, and the  situation, the wake of the 2008 economic downturn that swept across the U.S. and the world. But the single greatest achievement of the film is the focus on eight families (ironically also the most troubling aspect as I will discuss below) who put “people just like us” faces on the consequences of disaster capitalism and force the audience to reconsider stereotypes of people trapped in the clutches of poverty.

The people of these narratives are overwhelmingly white and entirely from the middle and working classes—simultaneously, literally not “people just like us” (considering the increasing racial diversity of the country) but also the characteristics historically associated with the idealized middle class of the American Dream myth. It is both important and problematic that the families in this film are not victims of generational poverty, but real-world models of people who have embraced and achieved, although momentarily, some elements of that American Dream—education, careers, homes or the promise of home ownership, marriage, children, and, not to be ignored in the background throughout the video, an abundance of assorted material possessions that can be found in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across America.

Punctuating these stories are job loss, eviction, homelessness, hunger, sickness, and the frail as well as dwindling safety nets of government, church, and private organizations.

Documentaries, like all forms of nonfiction texts, are never unbiased, and always some political and ideological lens for observing a phenomenon. Too often documentaries are shoddy, careless, and misleading. American Winter wears its ideology on its sleeve, but does so effectively and with a level of integrity that lends it credibility even for those who don’t share its social justice politics.

The families are allowed primarily to speak for themselves, literally and through a patient camera following them as they wilt beneath the weight of joblessness and homelessness—especially when the children speak, cry, and personify the incredible inequity of how burdensome healthcare can be through no fault of those who find themselves sick (for example, Chelsea’s battle with bleeding ulcers leaves her mother Shanon facing $49,000 in medical bills while the family is otherwise destitute).

The film also weaves clear and confrontational statistics throughout the stories of the families. The blunt facts and harsh experiences in this documentary present a different picture than political leaders, the media, and the public tend to embrace and perpetuate: Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and seeking out social services are not the consequences of flawed individuals, but the result of systemic inequity in America’s government and economy.

The idealized American Dream may never have been a credible cultural foundation, but American Winter convincingly forces viewers to recognize that democracy and capitalism have been consumed by disaster capitalism. And here are some of the questions the film does raise as well as some of the problems embedded in an otherwise ambitious and even radical project.

“Disaster capitalism” [2] is a term associated with Noami Klein, as she explains:

People spontaneously started using “disaster capitalism” to describe what was happening with what they were seeing around them because it was so clear that this disaster was being harnessed to push through a radical vision of totally unrestricted markets. And Bush didn’t make too much of a secret of it when he announced that his idea of reconstructing the Gulf Coast was to turn it into a tax-free, free-enterprise zone.

What the book is doing that’s new is it is connecting these contemporary capitalisms, which I think most of us can easily see in Iraq and in New Orleans, and saying actually this isn’t just some twisted invention of the Bush White House. That actually there is a history. Every time there has been a major leap forward for this fundamentalist version of capitalism that really doesn’t see a role for the state, the ground has been prepared by some kind of shock.

In American Winter, the disaster is the economic downturn, but in New Orleans, the disaster was natural, Hurricane Katrina. Portland and New Orleans [3] also share a central mechanism of disaster capitalism: A disaster creates the opportunity for a workforce to be erased, the job market then contracts, and a workforce is rebuilt in reduced circumstances for the workers—lower wages, part-time positions instead of full-time employment, an absence of benefits, service positions replacing skill and managerial positions.

The events in Portland and New Orleans are stark examples that the workforce problem in the U.S. is not a lack of skilled and eager workers, but an artificially contracting business model that benefits the 1% with American workers as interchangeable widgets.

While the focus on the plight of the American worker is needed and vivid in American Winter, one consequence of the choice to examine American workers dropping into poverty is that poverty is regrettable and something to be addressed only because it can (and did) happen to the working and middle class—in other words, generational poverty is left at the side of this film and the corrosive myth that generational poverty is the fault of those in poverty remains untouched.

In fact, as the viewers’ sympathy for the eight families increases, it seems entirely likely that people in generational poverty may be viewed even more harshly than before because poverty sits as a middle-class fear in the film. The deficit and demonizing perspectives of poverty are not challenged in the film and may be unintentionally strengthened.

In its purest form, capitalism may be viewed as needing all  citizens having access to some relatively balanced reserve of capital for that consumer market to thrive, but disaster capitalism is a corruption of the distribution of capital, thriving in fact on the threat of poverty as motivation for low-wage, mind-numbing and soul-draining work. Disaster capitalism is hurt less by some having no or little capital than by the absence of poverty, an absence that would lift the necessary threat that maintains a culture of fear and a frantic pace that distracts the 99% while the 1% play.

Many scenes in American Winter haunt me, but few as much as Brandon, reduced and broken, at the end in a scene that likely was intended as one glimmer of light in a truly dark winter for these families.

But Brandon—like many of the children in these families—personifies how disaster capitalism and consumerism have created an existence whereby our humanity is almost entirely anchored to who we are as workers. Our worker self is not a subset of who we are as humans; our worker self is our self.

Ultimately, that is the greatest disaster in disaster capitalism.

[1] Listen to Steve Hargadon interview Adam Bessie and see Bessie/Archer graphic journalism series on disaster capitalism and education reform (G.E.R.M.):

[3] See Sarah Carr’s Hope against Hope, which examines how charter schools replaced the public school system in New Orleans post-Katrina.