The Eternal Narcissism of White Privilege

The nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican Party has spawned a growing body of punditry seeking ways to explain Trump’s rise without directly addressing racism, bigotry, and xenophobia.

The explanation du jour cautions critics of Trump supporters, arguing that Trump is attractive to working-class whites who have legitimate fears.

Works such as Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance have become representative of the serious reconsideration of the angry white voter, as Vance proclaims:

The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

However, as a redneck son of the self-defeating South, I immediately had a different reaction to Vance and the scramble to attend to the eternal narcissism of white privilege:

The four-year-old Joel frets about his mother: “She’s not looking at me. No one ever looks at me.”

The histrionics of working class whites, to me, sound like arrested development, spurred by the long deferred political and social recognition about racism prompted by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The consequences of white privilege include that privilege is both ever-present and thus invisible—much as we says that fish don’t understand water.

And thus, while working-class whites have suffered because of disaster capitalism and the vast majority of the policies implemented by the Republican machine they support, the narcissism of privilege among working-class whites in the U.S. blinds them from two powerful and damning facts:

  1. White privilege buoys all whites in comparison to black and brown people in terms of socioeconomic opportunity and wealth as well as shielding whites from the negative consequences of the U.S. judicial system and policing. Just as two examples, whites who dropped out of high school have the same employment opportunities as blacks with some college, and blacks constitute only about 12% of the U.S. population, but mass incarceration impacts 2207/100,000 blacks compared to 380/100,000 whites.
  2. Working-class whites have supported Republicans for ideological reasons linked to religious and racial bigotry—while disregarding how that commitment has been self-defeating to their own interests. As Neil Gross explains: “Union decline [as a subset of many economic factors, I want to add] has left the [white] working class politically and economically vulnerable, and it’s this vulnerability Mr. Trump has been able to exploit.”

This “O, crap!” moment for working-class whites isn’t without merit, but it comes with the same sort of false logic found in the South where whites shout for blacks to “Get over slavery” while clutching and waving the Confederate battle flag and screaming “Tradition!”

Again, as a life-long Southerner, I am compelled despite my own skepticism about organized religion, especially the fundamentalist kind of my home region, to proclaim that working-class whites need to have a Come-to-Jesus moment.

First, while recognizing the power of white privilege regardless of socioeconomic status is essential, working-class whites must forefront the concerns of black and brown people who suffer disproportionately for the mere fact of their race in the U.S.

Next, working-class whites must form a solidarity with all people who share their social and economic needs: working-class status is more significant for equity in the U.S. than religious or racial differences.

And finally, working-class whites must reject the “Make American Great Again” mantra since there is no compelling evidence to support either that the U.S. was once great or that somehow the expansion of freedom and equity beyond whiteness is anti-American.

Again, in a blazing display of illogic, while working-class whites remain committed to mythologies such as “a rising tide lifts all boats,” they have politically resisted expanding* marriage rights to homosexuals, social and economic equity to black and brown Americans, equal pay for women, American citizenship for immigrants, the end to mass incarceration for recreational marijuana use—all of which raising the tide for everyone in the U.S. by growing freedom.

If we concede to the mainstream whitewashing of Trump and his supporters; if we continue not to name bigotry, racism, and xenophobia; if we only attend to anything once it becomes a white problem—we are failing the very thing the Right and conservatives are so quick to shout about: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The “yes, but” narcissism of white privilege once again is shouting over #BlackLivesMatter, and their ring-leader is the king of shouting over substance.

Working-class whites need to put on their grown-up pants, sit down, listen patiently, and wait their turn—finally.


* And ideologically refuse even to acknowledge these inequities exist or matter.

Note: Below are Tweets of mine prompting this blog post:

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.


In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.


I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.


Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.


And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

Questions for the P&C about School Closure, Takeover

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).

Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:

How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?

Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?

Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.

At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.

Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”

As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.

But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.

So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:

  • Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
  • Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
  • And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.

This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:

But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.

SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.

For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?

Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.

Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”

U.S. Offers Only Soft or Hard Commitments to Ravages of Consumerism

Many people have commented on the rise of Trump as the leader in the Republican quest for president—noting it is like a bad reality show or some life-imitates-art version of Idiocracy.

However, the truth of what Trump represents is much, much uglier than any of those speculations because Trump represents almost perfectly exactly who the U.S. is, and essentially always has been.

The U.S. has always bloviated on sweeping and grand ideologies about Freedom, Liberty, and so much horse manure, but the very beginnings of that were while white males owned human slaves and white females were human only in relationship to some white man.

The U.S. has always been about someone’s freedom at the expense of other people’s human dignity; and that fact remains today in 2016.

And when people say the the U.S. is a conservative nation, mostly right of center (especially in relationship to Europe and Canada), the reality of that is “conservative” is a code for a blind and nearly rabid commitment to consumerism—a consumerism grounded in Social Darwinism that breeds a lust for financial wealth regardless of the consequences to others.

Sure, Trump is profoundly unqualified to be a national leader and is spewing vile and inexcusable hatred, but the space between Trump and mainstream Republicans and Democrats is minuscule once you set aside the rhetoric.

From Trump to Cruz, a slight step back and to the side; from Cruz to Hillary, yet another slight step back and to the side. Republicans bark a hard commitment and Democrats skirt a soft commitment to the ravages of consumerism, but the consequences are the same.

Except for Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, team politics between Republicans and Democrats is splitting hairs and turning a blind eye to your candidate while eviscerating the other side’s candidate for the same behavior.

Mainstream politics in the U.S. creates the delusion of choice and keeps the public frantic so that no one notices there really is no difference because everything is about the winners maintaining their edge.

Never-ending war, mass incarceration, staggering income and wealth inequity, underfunded public institutions, refusals to acknowledge lingering racism—these are the qualities among every candidate on both sides of the so-called aisle.

The Nixon/Reagan contributions to mass incarceration of black and brown populations are nearly indistinguishable from the Clinton era gutting of the social safety net devastating the same people.

And all the while, the only thing that matters is the economy. The sacred economy doomed George W. Bush’s presidency and ushered in Obama—not any ethical matters of war or failures to secure human dignity or the lip service we give Democracy.

There could be few indignities worse than electing Trump as president of the U.S., but to be perfectly honest, Trump is in the course of the history of the country, the most perfect representative of who we are and have always been: A cartoon character spewing bromides to hide our dark and soulless greed.

And then, nearly as bad, if we elect someone from the remaining mainstream candidates, that indignity will be only slightly less than choosing Trump because what she or he represents is so close to being the same that it really doesn’t matter.

A Crack in the Dam of Disaster Capitalism Education Reform?

“Disaster capitalism” may at first blush appear to be hyperbole, ideological manipulation, or so much academic jargon; however, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the education reform that disaster unintentionally created now represents the various components of how those market-based policies both reflect and perpetuate the very educational problems reformers claim to be addressing.

For this post, I am targeted as elements of disaster capitalism education reform the following: dismantling teachers’ unions/tenure, hiring Teach For America (TFA) cadets, converting traditional public schools to charter schools, and creating takeover districts (often called “achievement” or “opportunity” districts).

Before addressing how these disaster capitalism reforms are failing, I want to emphasize that very real and clear problems exist in traditional public schools (TPS), for example:

  • TPS are increasingly segregated by race and social class.
  • Vulnerable student populations (poor, black/brown, English Language Learners [ELL], special needs students) are disproportionately attending underfunded schools and school buildings in disrepair; they are funneled into low-tracked courses that are test-prep and/or unchallenging (basic); they are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers while also sitting in high teacher-student ratios courses; and they are disproportionately subjected to inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.

When the education reform movement kicked into high gear, the promises were grand and the evidence was thin, but now we are beginning to have evidence of how the grand claims have wilted on the vine, and the fruit is rotting all around us.

The blunt truth is disaster capitalism reform commitments failed to admit the real problems facing our TPS (societal inequity as well as in-school inequity), offered market-based solutions that could only address problems indirectly (the Invisible Hand), and have refused to admit the growing research base showing that these so-called reforms create and perpetuate the problems reformers ignored at the outset (the whole “no excuses” charade that trivialized addressing societal inequity as making excuses).

Charter schools are not raising test scores, but they are segregating children by race and class. Charter schools are also intensifying the already inequitable disciplinary practices vulnerable students face in formal schooling (notably for black and brown children).

Takeover school districts (such as the Recovery School District in New orleans) have been unmasked as failures.

But possibly the best example of how disaster capitalism education reform is failing is now being exposed by former TFA participants, specifically the research of Terrenda C. White.

White’s analysis reveals that while TFA makes big claims about addressing diversity (and may have done so within TFA), the consequences of districts and states committing to TFA have had the opposite effect. In an interview, White strikes at this paradox:

What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by TFA’s expansion in that region. I’ve never heard TFA talk about or address that issue. Or take Chicago, where the number of Black teachers has been cut in half as schools have been closed or turned around. In the lawsuits that teachers filed against the Chicago Board of Education, they used a lot of social science research and tracked that if a school was low performing and was located on the north or the west side and had a higher percentage of white teachers, that school was less likely to be closed. As the teachers pointed out, this wasn’t just about closing low-performing schools, but closing low-performing schools in communities of color, and particularly those schools that had a higher percentage of teachers of color. What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix (emphasis added).

The evidence is clear, across the elements of disaster capitalism education reform, that these policies are suffering from the same inequities that are at the root of TPS failures.

I have been making this plea for some time now, but the evidence has grown in my favor, and even those from within the disaster capitalism education reform movement, such as White, have begun to admit the crack:

Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease (emphasis added). (Oscar Wilde [1891], The Soul of Man under Socialism)

Let us now admit the larger problems, confront the failures of TPS, and then create policies that address directly and openly the problems, many of which are related to race and social class inequity.

8 January 2016: “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”

Blade Runner is a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The film is my favorite film, although the adaptation is quite distinct from the novel—also a wonderful work itself.

Today, 8 January 2016, marks the birth of replicant Roy:

Roy

Roy’s final monologue is a powerful and currently relevant statement, notably—”Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”:

The use of androids-as-slaves as a metaphor for the human condition is also in the science fiction section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

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wage slaves

(from Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?)

Another brilliant, but ignored, science fiction examination of our slavery to time is Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), a powerful confrontation of how capitalism turns most people frantic so that a few can live in luxury.

When science fiction is set in the future relative to the publication or release of the original work, rarely is the work intended to be predictive—but often, the work is intended to tell us important things about the human condition and any now by taking us to places that seem unlike our now.

Roy as an enlightened android—more enlightened than the humans who created him to be a slave—ends his haunting monologue with “Time to die.”

I think this is intended so that we seek ways to live better, freer.

Enjoy the four-disc collector’s edition of Blade Runner.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also is available as a graphic novel series.

From Crenshaw to Hartsville: Race, Poverty, and Education Reform

In order to avoid the existential hell known as I-85 where morning commuters creep along bug-like in a daily Kafkan nightmare, I take winding backroads through the Upstate of South Carolina to my university.

Recently, I noticed a real estate sign advertising a new neighborhood with an added bright yellow sign above signaling, “RIVERSIDE SCHOOLS.”

Children in this housing development will attend, eventually, Riverside High, which is ranked 13th lowest of 237 SC high schools in the 2014 Poverty Index, has Excellent/Excellent ratings on the 2014 SC report card, and tests only 51/341 students on subsidized meals and 25/341 with limited English proficiency:

Riverside HS PI 2014

Riverside HS 2014 report card 1Among four other comparable high schools in the state, they all are rated Excellent:

Riverside HS schools like ours 2014Having placed student teachers at Riverside High, and knowing faculty there, I can attest that this is a wonderful school, and students are both supported and challenged.

The real estate sign struck me especially since I had viewed two new educational documentaries: Crenshaw, a film by activist Lena Jackson on the Los Angeles school, and 180 Days: Hartsville, focusing on two schools—Thornwell School for the Arts and West Hartsville Elementary School—along the infamous I-95 Corridor of Shame in my home state of SC.

While nearly 2500 miles apart and politically/culturally worlds apart, Los Angeles and Hartsville reflect powerful narratives about the intersections of race, poverty, and education reform. As well, they offer nuance to those intersections since Creshaw High is high-poverty, majority-minority in an urban setting while Hartsville’s elementary schools are high-poverty, majority-minorty in the rural South.

Before discussing each documentary separately, let me highlight what they share as entry points into reconsidering race, poverty, and education reform:

  • Public schools both serve and reflect the communities within which they sit.
  • Race and poverty significantly impact academic achievement, and thus, when schools, teachers, and students are labeled, ranked, and judged by test scores, high-poverty and majority-minority schools are disproportionately identified as “failing.”
  • Political leadership often expresses support for education and public schools, but implements policies that appear tone deaf to the communities they represent.
  • Education reform advocates ignore the failure of popular policies.
  • Demands of effort and not embracing excuses dominate political and educational rhetoric (despite ample evidence that effort is trumped by racism/classism).
  • Parents, students, and teachers are often passionate about education, regardless of economic status or race.

Crenshaw: Disenfranchising through Take Over Strategies

Crenshaw is, as David B. Cohen explains, a “cautionary tale” about school take overs narrowly and education reform built on accountability broadly.

Jackson does a wonderful job in 20 minutes introducing viewers to the students, parents, and teachers whose lives and learning/teaching are dramatically disrupted by converting Crenshaw High into a magnet school as part of a take over plan.

This film is an excellent introduction to how so-called good intentions of political education reform is not only insufficient, but also harmful.

The take over of Crenshaw disenfranchises the students, parents, and teachers highlighted in the documentary and exposes that political leadership (school board and Superintendent John Deasy) often fails to be culturally sensitive or appropriately responsive to the needs of the people they serve.

Ultimately, as in New Orleans, Crenshaw and the take over represent a failure to identify the sources of entrenched problems, to listen to the people whose lives are being impacted by policy, and to be open to alternative views of both problems and solutions.

Crenshaw High is now and has been for decades a reflection of deep and serious social inequity fueled by racism, classism, and an unresponsive political establishment.

Changing a school’s name, firing the adults who have dedicated their lives to students, and ignoring the parents of those students—these appear to be the worst possible actions available, and regretfully, what more and more political leaders seem determined to do.

Hartsville: It’s All about the Tests (I Mean, Children)

As a life-long resident of and career-long educator in SC, I have lived and witnessed the historical and lingering racism and poverty that scar our state and our schools.

In my education foundations and educational documentary courses, I show Corridor of Shame, and we examine issues related to pockets of poverty across SC and school funding.

I also highlight how problematic Corridor is as a documentary since it depends on maudlin music and slow-motion shots of children looking forlorn. The inequity along I-95 in SC needs no emotional appeal; the conditions are inexcusable, and any reasonable person can see that.

In that context, I was nervous about 180 Days: Hartsville—although I do trust and respect co-producer Sam Chaltain and feel that the documentary does offer a much more complex portrayal of education reform, race, and poverty in SC than Corridor.

Broadly, depending on how audiences interpret the narratives of the film, 180 Days: Hartsville challenges the effectiveness of accountability-based reform that focuses on in-school policies only.

That “depending,” however, is huge.

Yes, the two schools and the central family highlighted are wonderful and accurate representations of the huge challenges of public schools in a high-poverty community.

I find the educators, parents, and students extremely compelling and genuine—a tribute to the care taken with the film.

There are also moments that need to be paused, digested carefully: the burdens of working minimum-wage jobs, the pressures of being a child living in poverty and trying to succeed in school, the passion and compassion of educators, and the determination of a parent working two jobs and raising two children alone.

Statistics flashed on the screen and audio/video snippets of political rhetoric against cuts to education funding—these also demand greater critical consideration.

But I am left deeply concerned that too many viewers will not respond as I did to the relentless influence of testing the film captures throughout—because the film is also punctuated with adults expressing a “no excuses” mentality, again with the best intentions.

These educators are supportive and positive, but those qualities cannot temper the weight of testing that has become the end-all, be-all of public schooling—especially for our high-poverty, majority-minority schools.

Viewers watch a highly dedicated principal at Thornwell School for the Arts giving pep talks to entire grade levels of students as well as students preparing to take MAP tests, computerized commercial programs that give detailed and nearly immediate feedback and claim to be strongly correlated with high-stakes state testing.

Viewers also watch as students’ names are moved on a board in front of those students so that each child is listed under her/his status according to the tests.

The money and time spent on MAP and the public labeling of students—not to mention, Where are the arts?—should prompt us all to end the madness that is high-stakes accountability. But, again, I fear many viewers found the story compelling because the educators and students were working so hard, and are characterized as being uniquely successful.

And it is at that last point we must pause.

First, schools that are outliers are not evidence of any need for policy, or for any standard by which to judge all schools. Outliers are outliers for a reason.

But, as well, consider Thornwell School for the Arts 2014 school report card:

Thornwell 2014 report card

And how does Thornwell School for the Arts look against comparable schools across SC?:

Thornwell schools like ours 2014

While the film suggests nearly “miracle” outcomes, the school, in fact, continues to struggle under the burdens of poverty and race; as the classifications above show, the school is typical of schools with similar students.

The film highlights only one of the two ways in which SC evaluates schools—the annual state report card that has been in use for most of SC’s decades of accountability and the federal accountability report (in 2014, Thornwell School for the Arts received a B/86.7 and West Hartsville Elementary, a B/81.1).

Without context, and careful analysis of what data are being portrayed along with why and how (former Superintendent Mick Zais [R] manipulated the federal accountability reports in order to criss-cross the state to “prove” poverty doesn’t matter, for example), viewers are apt to fall under the impression that schools struggling against poverty just need to demand more from educators and children.

However, for me, the key scene is when the principal at West Hartsville Elementary must confront the tremendously complex issues surrounding Rashon, ones that are often outside the ability of the school or even his mother to control.

180 Days: Hartsville is a story of place. It is, like Crenshaw, a cautionary tale, but I suspect one easily misinterpreted.

I think the intent behind this film is to offer Hartsville as a model for education reform addressing race and poverty because the efforts of the educators and students are remarkable and community business has committed to addressing the complex elements of poverty in the area and schools.

However, the film actually reveals that accountability has failed SC and the entire U.S.

How?

The relentless and dehumanizing focus on data—as if people are somehow not involved.

Ultimately what connects Crenshaw in Los Angeles to two elementary schools in SC is this mostly ignored fact: political rhetoric and tone-deaf education policy are not curative but part of the disease.

Once again, there are no miracles—but there are very real and very harmful consequences to demanding the impossible from schools, educators, parents, and children who are ultimately the victims of the racism and poverty political leaders refuse to acknowledge or erase.

For Additional Reading

What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong in the First Place?, Bill Raden

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”

No Child Left Behind fails to work ‘miracles,’ spurs cheating

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference: Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F

Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts