The Ignored “R” Word of Education Reform: “We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all”

Although the foundational approach to education reform has remained the same (as has the structure of and instruction in public schools) for about a century—one grounded in revising or updating in-school-only elements such as standards/curriculum, technology, and testing—the past thirty years have seen education reform increase accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing (despite that approach never working) while rushing to experiment with charter schools and value-added methods of evaluating teachers (despite neither working as well).

And thus the “R” word that has remained ignored in education reform is not “reform,” but “race”—or more directly “racism.”

Throughout our current three decades of education reform, poverty has been a significant part of the discourse and equation—often framed as “not an excuse” or misrepresented as the “achievement gap.” Poverty, then, has been allowed in the conversation, included in the policies, and identified as a significant barrier to learning, but only as something we must overcome through racketing up the same old approaches to education reform noted above.

Just as one example, every year SAT data are released, the strongest correlations with scores remain the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and the academic attainment of those students’ parents. Yet, these historic and current patterns remain for the education reformers evidence not of systemic social inequity and not evidence of failed education reform or systemic school inequity, but proof that teachers and students simply are not trying hard enough.

Education reform not only ignores inequity bred from racism, classism, and sexism, but also actively perpetuates and even increases that inequity (most significantly reflected in high-stakes standardized testing).

The political, media, and public narratives in the U.S. focus only on the individual, and in the relationship among effort, talent, and opportunity, those narratives address only effort.

We must ask: Who benefits from cultural narratives that claim success comes from effort and failure from sloth? Who benefits when those cultural narratives begin by claiming everyone has the same opportunity in the U.S., by erasing the evidence of the power of privilege and disadvantage, most often grounded in race?

Sloganism and the Racist Politics of Education Reform

The ugly answer to those questions is that white and affluent privilege benefits from these cultural narratives that are in fact false and racist.

But we aren’t allowed to utter “lie” or “racism” in polite company in the U.S.—and such decorum, of course, may have sprung from those privileged few who are the ones most likely to have their sensibility bruised by both the directness and accuracy of those claims.

In a land where “racism” is not allowed in the conversation, racism does not disappear, but remains corrosive, powerfully so; as poet Adrienne Rich notes, “what is missing, desaparecido, [is] rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.” If we cannot say it, if we cannot think it, we certainly will not act to eradicate it.

And to demand individuals simply try harder in a context where effort is not the problem, and not the solution, is a harsher and more damning racism than in those days not too far in the U.S. past where racial slurs were public, frequent, and normal. “Work hard. Be nice” is the twenty-first century masked racial slur:

Currently, the grotesque reality we have created includes shunning direct and public racist language in the same ways we deflect credible acknowledgements of racism.

Just as book censorship is an effective and masked act of racism and sexism (authors or color and female writers are disproportionately impacted, silenced), just as mass incarceration is an effective and masked act of racism (white males outnumber black males 6-1 in society while black males outnumber white males 6-1 in prison), “no excuses” education reform focused on in-school policy and driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing is an effective and masked act of racism.

The primary sloganism used for effort is “grit,” and the anecdotal proof remains the Great White Male (Steve Jobs, for example)—with the exceptional outlier of color tossed in for good measure (the election of Barack Obama proves U.S. is a post-racial society, goes the claim).

Calling out racism is ignored, is shunned because the “grit” narrative and the Great White Male fall apart in the light of such calls—like a vampire reduced to dust by the risen sun.

Confronting Jonathan Chait directly in Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind, Ta-Nehisi Coates also dismantles the “grit” narrative by stating what shall not be uttered in the U.S.:

Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America….

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one.

And then it is Coates’s conclusion that exposes the essential racism in education reform—demanding exceptional effort by those marginalized exclusively for their race:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

Possibly an even greater refuting of the “grit” narrative—the perverse demands of more effort from “the deliberately silenced,” “the preferably unheard” in the U.S.—is The Price of Black Ambition by Roxane Gay.

Gay has been brought to the place where she is confronting her ambition as a black Haitian because she is riding a wave of success for her novel, An Untamed States, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. “I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten,” Gay admits, adding a haunting event:

Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.

On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.

Like Coates, Gay recognizes her experience is not only hers:

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

Coates’s “superhuman” and Gay’s “outsized ambition” reverberate inside the walls built in the U.S. to keep such voices quiet because the truth is harsh, and ugly—as Gay explains:

I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.

While Gay as a black Haitian woman and I as a privileged white male have experienced much different lives, I can strongly identify with the allure she feels for the myth of the rugged individual:

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.

Further, in the way that we should be confronting education reform, Gay unpacks President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, exposing the essential failure of the policy (an essential failure identified by Martin Luther King Jr. as addressing social inequity indirectly, instead of directly):

The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are.

Gay warns us about the dangers of exceptionality: “We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.” And then, after wrestling with the tensions created by her advantages shaded by burdens of her race and gender, Gay concludes:

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied.

What I Have Learned from Sports

In my introductory education course and two first year seminars this fall, I have shared Gay’s wonderful and complicated essay. That education course has begun to confront the uncomfortable facts of privilege and race, and those first year students (since I teach at a selective university which results in a student population disproportionately white and affluent) echo Gay’s experiences with ambition and guilt. Gay’s kindergarten memory reflects something quite wrong about how all children are raised in the U.S. as well as revealing the scar of racism.

With those first-year students, we confronted the public and adult messages they have been sent about effort, talent, and opportunity. That discussion was sobering.

I shared with them my own journey—again one resting on significant privilege since I am white and male, but tinged slightly by my working-class background—to rejecting the “grit” propaganda—a journey traced through my efforts to be a successful athlete.

In high school, I worked doggedly to be a good basketball player; I made very little effort in school. I was usually the last player selected on the basketball team each year (primarily because the coaches knew my father) and then rode the bench, but I made mostly As and a few Bs in my classes.

At basketball practice, I often tried harder than anyone, something noted by the coaches even. But on game day, the better athletes (some who made almost no effort in practice) played. I had been raised in a “Word hard. Be nice” household, a vestige of 1950s idealism in the U.S. But the world of sport showed me the truth: Talent trumps effort when given the opportunity.

In other words, the “grit” honoring of effort first (and even exclusively) is a warped version of the real order of things: Opportunity, talent, and then effort.

The “grit” narrative, then, and the sloganism of “Work hard. Be nice”—regardless of good intentions—are the racial slurs of our time.

To end that racism, it first must be named, and then directly, we must attend to the opportunities denied so that talent and effort can matter. And the first opportunity every child, every person deserves is the basic human dignity that is destroyed when, as Gay stated, anyone feels that “[w]e must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.”

6 comments

  1. Daun Kauffman

    Does a portion of both the “grit” and the “work hard” perspectives also connect to the western (particularly the USA) “loner” or (romanticized) cowboy experience ?

  2. Pingback: Ed News, Friday, November 7, 2014 Edition | tigersteach
  3. Pingback: Peg with Pen: Gaslighting & Turnaround Schools | Study & Work Abroad
  4. Pingback: "Gaslighting & Turnaround Schools" by Peggy Robertson from Peg With Pen - Garn Press

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