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

Good Intentions, Political Realities, Privileged Cluelessness: On Education Reform and Poverty

Education and education reform are vibrant examples of the wide spectrum of good people with good intentions and then all the way to the other extreme, spurious people with dubious intentions.

When my home state of South Carolina began sliding down that slippery slope of adopting (flawed and misrepresented) reading policy modeled on Florida, I came face to face (actually, voice to voice) with the harsh realization that good people with good intentions can be as harmful as spurious people with dubious intentions: Good people with whom I had been talking suddenly brushed me off, citing political expediency—better to get the money for reading and swallow the horrible grade retention element than to get no money at all, I was told.

I thought of this when I saw associate editor at The State Cindi Scoppe’s To fix SC schools, start with governance. Scoppe, for full disclosure, has published a number of my Op-Eds in The State, notable is that my positions are decidedly not in line with the politics or ideology of my home state.

Also, I am certain Scoppe is a good person with good intentions; she genuinely wants equitable and effective schools for all children in SC.

However, I also know good intentions (even mine) are not enough.

Scoppe opens with admitting she isn’t an expert on educating students, and then offers a relatively modest plan for education reform—ones she characterizes as “commonsense reforms that come from across the political spectrum.” Scoppe endorses the “best ideas from the right and left,” including:

  • Making it easier to fire bad teachers (right);
  • increasing teacher pay to teach impoverished students, and freeing teachers from non-teaching tasks (left);
  • increasing charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice, and giving schools more freedom in spending (right);
  • implementing a better school funding formula, with more equity, and pursuing, possibly, district/school consolidation (left).

My immediate response was to share on Twitter my argument that we need not simply appease the political right and left, or the public, but instead should endorse evidence-based reform addressing equity.

So that leaves these questions:

  • Are bad teachers, and the difficulty firing them, major (or even minor) hurdles to high-quality education for all children in SC? I have never seen anyone making this claim show evidence that this is true. I am deeply skeptical of these claims, also, in a right-to-work state where teachers’ unions have no legal power and very limited buy-in by K-12 teachers in the state. The real teacher quality problem in SC (and across the U.S.) is a tremendous inequity of teacher assignment: affluent and white students disproportionately have experienced and certified/qualified teachers while impoverished, minority, ELL, and special needs students disproportionately have beginning/inexperienced and un-/under-certified/qualified teachers.
  • Would targeted merit pay for teaching high-needs students and relief from non-teaching tasks help improve education for high-poverty, majority-minority schools (notably along the Corridor of Shame)? Unlikely, since legislation in the past in SC has included both, unsuccessfully. Merit pay has been discredited for education (as well as all professions) in general, in fact (see the work of Daniel PinkAlfie Kohn, and Joe Bower). What we do know is that teachers are more motivated by teaching and learning conditions as well as support from administration and parents than by merit pay schemes. Step one for encouraging teachers to work with high-needs students is addressing directly teaching/learning conditions in high-poverty schools. Step two is to reject teacher evaluation plans that are predicted to discourage high-quality teachers from working with the students having the greatest needs.
  • Are investments in charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice effective reform measures for achieving educational equity? No. Charters schools in SC have shown that 95% of charters perform about the same and worse than public schools while also being highly segregated and often underserving ELL and special needs students. And the sloganism of “parental choice” hasn’t proven to be effective either; many efforts to increase parental choice have shown parents rarely choose based on academic quality, but tend to seek social or ideological goals.
  • Does SC need a better school funding formula, one that is more equitable, and one that likely will require consolidation of schools/districts? Yes, with caveats. Here, evidence is key. While there is a “common sense” argument that “money doesn’t matter” or “you can’t just throw money at schools,” solid and long-standing research refutes both; see the work of Bruce Baker. SC needs a new funding formula, but it must not be a partisan political event, and it must be based on research and not talking points. And as a powerful example, school/district consolidation is exactly one of those common sense ideas that research challenges: “While state-level consolidation proposals may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement.”

Good intentions and political expediency, then, simply are not enough—and are likely to keep SC mired in bad education reform piled on top of the historical and lingering cancers of racism and concentrated poverty.

Which brings us to the other side of the spectrum—spurious people with dubious intentions, in this case the grand whitesplainer employed by The New York Times.

I refuse to mention he-who-shall-not-be-named, and gross stereotyping of people in poverty deserves as little attention as possible, but for balance here, I offer a wonderful refuting by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies.

And also, Emmitt Rensin offers a thorough unpacking and discrediting of “blame the poor” mentalities:

It would be one thing if we didn’t recognize the problem of American poverty. It would be easy if the moral scolding of our poor were confined to one section of our polity. Then we might pursue the many avenues of fiscal and monetary policy available to us. But among even those whose rhetoric suggests an awareness of the situation, even those who know that to be born monied in America is to be heir to a self-fulfilling prophesy of the kind of “good” behavior Brooks is crying out for, are so easily seduced by a reversal of effect and cause.

But out here, poor parents, poor kids and poor schools don’t have the luxury of indulging Brook’s harmful, costly relativism. They live by the most inflexible “code” of our national life: If you’re poor, you’re on your own. Good luck. Oh, and we’ll be watching. Future pay will reflect performance….

We aren’t bereft of ideals. Rather, we are plagued with bad ones—that discipline is proved by wealth, that the ideas of middle class luxury help children more than material wealth.

A better set might be the kind that makes the elected, empowered, ostensible advocates of America’s poor ask “tough questions” about their culpability in the condition of “our kids.” The kind that recognizes that there is a moral failure at the bottom of American poverty—but this failure does not belong to its own victims.

I will end with this: U.S. public education, notably in SC, is a disturbing reflection of the inexcusable inequity in our country not the result of anyone’s effort or character, but the consequences of privilege and inequity.

Until we make political, media, and public efforts to eradicate inequity and poverty—including that we rise above the hatred aimed at impoverished people, racial minorities, and women—from our society and our schools, whether we fire bad teachers, add more charter schools, or not will make little difference.

Testing the Education Market, Cashing In, and Failing Social Justice Again

On Black Friday 2014—when the U.S. officially begins the Christmas holiday season, revealing that we mostly worship consumerism (all else is mere decoration)—we are poised to be distracted once again from those things that really matter. Shopping feeding frenzies will allow Ferguson and Tamir Rice to fade away for the privileged—while those most directly impacted by racism and classism, poverty and austerity remain trapped in those realities.

History is proof that these failures have lingered, and that they fade. Listen to James Baldwin. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the narrower education reform debate, we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted, mostly by the Common Core debate itself. As I have stated more times that I care to note, that Common Core advocates have sustained the debate is both a waste of our precious time and proof that Common Core has won.

As well, we are misguided whenever we argue that Common Core uniquely is the problem—instead of recognizing that Common Core is but a current form of a continual failure in education, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

With the release of Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report*, we have yet another opportunity to confront that Common Core is the problem, not the solution, because it is the source of a powerful drain on public resources in education that are not now invested in conditions related to racial and class inequity in our public schools.

Richards and Stebbins (2014) explain:

The PreK-12 testing and assessment market segment has experienced remarkable growth over the last several years. This growth has occurred in difficult economic times during an overall PreK-12 budget and spending decline….

Participants almost universally identified four key factors affecting the recent growth of the digital testing and assessment market segment:

1) The Common Core State Standards are Changing Curricula

2) The Rollout of Common Core Assessments are Galvanizing Activity….

(Executive Summary, pp. 1, 2)

testing and assessment 57 percent

(Richards & Stebbins 2014).

So as I have argued before, Common Core advocacy is market-driven, benefiting those invested in its adoption. But we must also acknowledge that that market success is at the expense of the very students who most need our public schools.

And there is the problem—not the end of cursive, not how we teach math, not whether the standards are age-appropriate.

Common Core is a continuation of failing social justice, draining public resources from needed actions that confront directly the inexcusable inequities of our schools, inequities often reflecting the tragic inequities of our society:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012, 2 of 5)

Who will be held accountable for the cost of feeding the education market while starving our marginalized children’s hope?

Reference

Richards, J., & Stebbins, L. (2014). Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report. Washington, D.C.: Software & Information Industry Association.

* Thanks to Schools Matter for posting, and thus, drawing my attention to the study.

Denying White Privilege Has an Evidence Problem

If I had to guess, I suspect Bill O’Reilly fancies himself more akin to George Will, Newt Gingrich, or Cal Thomas than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But speculating on that self-delusion isn’t really necessary because the reality is that all of these white, male pundits share a single quality: privilege.

And thus, it is all the more baffling when O’Reilly holds forth on denying privilege, prompting Charles Blow to conclude perfectly: “Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.”

The “that” to which O’Reilly is blind, of course, is his own privilege built on his being white and male.

It is there that self-delusion is powerful, rendering O’Reilly and his fellow white-male punditry incapable of seeing their self-delusion; thus we have some perverse inversion of Ralph Ellison’s narrator confronting his own invisibility because he is black.

To deny privilege garnered from being a white male reminds me of the same sort of delusion found among Libertarians who champion their rugged individualism—”I did it on my own!”—while remaining incapable of seeing that no one does anything on “her/his own.”

No one.

There is likely a tremendous amount of low self-esteem lurking beneath these white, male pundits who hold forth on anything with a gusto found mostly among 15-year-old boys. In fact, these white, male pundits are essentially suffering arrested development.

And the really ugly truth is that as long as white males dominate U.S. culture in terms of power and wealth, that dynamic creates an echo chamber in which blind-but-loud pundits like O’Reilly speak to the actual and the normalized white male essence of the country.

It is nearly as tiring and cannot be unrelated: We must become so weary of young black males being slaughtered in our country that we do something about it—for and with them, and not to them—and we must also become weary of a ruling elite born on third base (white, male) and confusing that with hitting a triple.

I am sick to my bones with a country that demonizes the powerless while worshipping the privileged.

I am sick to my bones with a country that will not see the human value of its children.

I am sick to my bones with a country that allows the list of names simply to grow: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown …

And I am sick to my bones with a country that creates wealth and celebrity for toxic white males.

It’s inexcusable, it’s embarrassing.

It’s exhausting to repeat, but necessary: we need a moratorium on white men pontification on race, class, and gender.

See Also

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

Denying Impact of Poverty Has an Evidence Problem

“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.”

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

Complicit: On Facing the Mirror Before Casting Stones

“Let me begin,” admits George J. Sefa Dei in “‘We Cannot Be Color-Blind': Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking,” “by making clear that I see myself as fully complicit in the discussion that I undertake in this chapter” (p. 25).

As we face large and powerful social forces such as poverty and racism—along with more narrow issues of education—I believe we all must address that first concern of who is complicit.

Let me begin with something that echoes in my mind almost continually, from Oscar Wilde: “But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.”

Consider taking that frame and using it many contexts: “But to recommend _____ to  _____ is both grotesque and insulting.”

Also consider who makes such recommendations. For the poor, the affluent and powerful—who do not live up to the same standards they impose—are the who.

Today—at this exact moment—we watch as a white authority structure recommends to a dominantly black community that which is “grotesque and insulting.” And then on a narrower scale, those with power and money recommend to educators that which is “grotesque and insulting.”

So whether we are confronting poverty and racism or education, we all must begin with who is complicit.

People in poverty and African Americans in the U.S. share one disturbing but distinct quality: disproportionately the impoverished and African Americans are excluded from the power structure.

Who, then, is complicit in the existence and tolerance of poverty and racism? It cannot be those without the power; therefore, it must be those with the power.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

White high school drop-outs and African Americans with some college have the same economic opportunities.

Whites and African Americans use recreational drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are targeted, charged, and incarcerated at much higher rates.

Those born wealthy and not attending college have greater economic power than those born in poverty and completing college.

To be white, to be wealthy—in the U.S. is to be complicit.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

While I think my field of education is of a magnitude smaller than issues of poverty and race, I must end there because the picture is hard to confront.

And because education is and always will be inextricable from the fight to end poverty and racism; as George J. Sefa Dei concludes, “Antiracism is about changing current processes of schooling and education delivery” (p. 39). We may say the same about poverty.

I have taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina and then been in teacher education for another 13 years. Teachers and teacher educators persistently complain about the bureaucracy of education; it is a relentless refrain among educators.

Recently, I received an email about how to anticipate what may be demanded of us when political regimes, once again, change; the email included: “No other profession has to deal with such crap.”

My response: “No other discipline would put up with that crap.”

Educators are complicit in the crap that is education reform. Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit.

All those scrambling to have a seat at the Common Core table, a table inextricable from the entire reform agenda—unions, administrators, teachers—all are complicit.

It is time to face the mirror, to examine who is complicit.