School choice lessons for Charleston – Post and Courier
Expanded version, early post: Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons from Charleston, SC
And at Truthout: Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons From Charleston, South Carolina
[included below with hyperlinks]
Mention a coastal city notable for its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters and human-made racism and generational poverty, and most people will think New Orleans, especially during the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
However, Charleston fits that same complicated profile and shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve equitably poor and black, resulting in both cities being targets of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven by political ideology.
While I have criticized mainstream media for covering education reform uncritically, I was impressed with the detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.
This coverage and related data are not new to those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (funding, teacher assignment, student tracking, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students.
Nonetheless, the Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to address that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, ones that are inextricable from racism and poverty.
One response to this series, a South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) Op-Ed titled School choice is a solution, not a problem, fails that opportunity because reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a debate about school choice is a distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.
As I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks do not represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps goals such as educational equity for black and poor children.
The Op-Ed response to Left Behind is primarily advocacy, without credible claims about either the results or promise of school choice (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).
Having written a book-length examination of school choice, I regret the choice debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.
- Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home.
- Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increases are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—not choice.
- School choice, notably charter schools, has increased racial and socioeconomic inequity: segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.
- SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools, and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.
But don’t poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy? Several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.
First, suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks.
Further, no one should have to wait for market forces might accomplish to have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first insure equitable public institutions.
As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
A full and robust commitment to public education is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market. The paradox is that in order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary.
As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but too often has exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.
After my Op-Ed on school choice ran in the Post and Courier, the P&C ran a letter that literally states, “And there is no ‘white privilege.'” Also great and disturbing evidence of the fight we face since the writer uses every tactic imaginable except addressing the evidence—attacking me, using one example to claim a generalization:
COMMENTARY: Are black children criminalized in schools?
Following the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count report showing South Carolina children are facing even greater challenges, research from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania) reveals that in SC and Greenville County black children are being disproportionately disciplined in our schools.
Just as the Kids Count data show racial inequity at the root of childhood challenges in our state, suspension and expulsion rates fall along racial lines between white and black students.
Across SC, “Blacks were 36% of students in school districts across the state, but comprised 60% of suspensions and 62% of expulsions,” including the SC Public Charter School having one of the highest ratios, 2.7 times disproportional. And in Greenville County, composed of 23.4% black students, the suspension rate for black students was double that enrollment at 47.4%.
However, the statistics themselves are not the whole story since research also shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. Reporting on the study in ColorLines, Kenrya Rankin Naasel explains:
When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.
David Ramey, assistant professor of sociology and criminology (Penn State), in a press release notes that these finding match a larger body of research:
The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors—for example, classroom disruptions, talking back—white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.
Further, beyond school, black children are viewed by police and others as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
From Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, Patton notes, the criminalization of black children in schools is amplified in the loss of young black life in streets.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has exposed that the U.S. judicial system, in fact, targets and punishes blacks differently for the same behaviors as whites. For example, Alexander notes that police units sweep high-poverty black neighborhoods for illegal recreation drugs but do not sweep college campuses, where drugs are just as likely but the population tends to be white and affluent.
In SC and Greenville County, then, we must begin to examine in our schools how our policies are criminalizing black students at a great cost to their lives as well as to the welfare of the state and area.
A first step is to acknowledge racial bias in perceptions about black children and then to examine not only the data on racial disparities in discipline outcomes but also the actual policies and practices in our schools.
Particularly in schools and when dealing with children of any race, punishments such as suspension and expulsion are likely harmful options that should not occur until interventions are implemented that address the needs of all children living in challenging environments.
Child behaviors identified as “bad” are often the consequences of life experiences not of any child’s making. In other words, school discipline policies may too often be punishing children for conditions not in their or even their parents’ control.
Disproportionate school discipline along racial lines reflects and perpetuates racial inequity in society and in our criminal justice system. Increasingly, research suggests that schools are creating a criminal class of black children instead of providing those children the support and guidance every child deserves to have a full and rich life.
SC and Greenville County schools face tremendous challenges because of pockets of poverty, but to neglect the lingering racism that compounds the weight of poverty guarantees failure for our schools and some children we are choosing to condemn instead of cherish.
The worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing.
At the first faculty meeting preceding the new academic year this fall, our university president, Elizabeth Davis, about to start her second year, spoke in part about focusing on the Furman experience instead of always reducing one year of college or college entirely to what comes next. As I listened I thought about talking with my students about the Furman Moment.
This call for appreciating the moment resonates with me because I have no capacity for it. As someone who has always struggled under the weight of intense anxiety, I am forever plagued by what comes next, and I am captive to an overactive brain that not only perpetually cycles through what comes next, but also manufactures always the worst case scenarios for what comes next.
For those of us who wrestle with this irrational anxiety, worrying, and senseless anticipation of doom, we develop outward appearances of stoicism to mask our frantic brains and simultaneously tightening and exploding chests (one of several bodily torture spots where anxiety nests—including shoulders, necks, hips, and hands).
We also are prone to self-medicate, seeking ways to dial us back toward normal. For the anxious, relaxation, even briefly, even if a delusion, is a cherished holiday, a relief. Let us step just for a moment off the merry-go-round, feet firmly on the ground, and we are forever grateful.
And for me, along with the rare oasis of pausing the relentlessness of anxiety and the incessant internal monologue of my Self talking to my Self, the Holy Grail is to be with another person (usually only one for those of us who are also introverts) who has some either shared understanding or graceful empathy for this anxiousness that is irrational and ultimately embarrassing.
Yes, the worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing, but the very worst thing about anxiety is explaining it every time you have to confess to it because you cannot view the world as most others do, because what is pleasure for many people is torture for you.
We learn to confess because naming a demon helps slay a demon, or at least hold that demon at bay.
But we anxious have a language that others do not understand, cannot understand.
And so we are often drawn to the wordless (a tragic paradox for the anxious who are writers)—a hand taken without comment, a hug or cuddling just to, these simple intimacies between two people who know each other, who know that sometimes everything is just beyond words. No expectations, no caveats, but the moment.
The great irony here, of course, is we anxious may dread physical contact or even being close to people virtually 99% of the time—the stress of casual proximity; the torture of ritualistic touching—handshakes, hugs—close talking, and crowds at social events. Let’s not even trudge into formal gatherings.
Anxiety, you see, is being overfull as a human too aware of everything. I mean Every Thing.
So full of recognition and sensation that we are spontaneous criers—more embarrassment—so we clench our entire bodies to try to hold everything in that is near to bursting through our eyes.
It is exhausting.
So as a late teen and young adult, I was immediately drawn to existentialism’s claim that our passions are our suffering, to the yin-yang concept of the impossibility of separating the light from the dark.
This was well before I recognized the anxiety, but I was quite aware that caring deeply was inseparable from feeling deeply anxious.
Relationships—marriage, a child—intensified these responses to the world exponentially, and then as I was more and more unable to manage all that overload of feeling this world, another response was to detach.
The hardest was my daughter’s teen and then young adult years when I had to set aside the urge to carry her around in my arms 24 hours a day. This is a universal issue for parenting, but for the anxious, it is the iceberg that sank the Titanic—others witness only the tip.
So now I am just a little over a year into being reminded of those wonderful and teeth-clenching years of parenting my daughter because she has gifted me a granddaughter.
A granddaughter just beginning her second year is a mostly wordless wonderment who when I am holding her in my arms while she naps is the most precious gift of relaxation an anxious human can enjoy.
A toddler, you see, often shuffles up next to you, a glorious proximity of closeness, raising her arms, longing to be picked up and held. These wonderful and precious years before she will quite literally beg to be left alone.
In the moment, she is wordless and affectionate with all the possibilities a child embodies.
There is more than a little guilt because of my need from this tiny child, to sit there and not worry in the moment because it is easy to believe everything is all right when a child is sleeping on your chest—a chest that is most of the day an artificial shield between the world and all the anxieties expanding there below the breastbone.
For me, my granddaughter sleeping on my chest is the moment I can live in, the evidence that for my students I must make the plea that they work on the very human skill of enjoying the moment instead of being always captive to the past or the unknowable future.
What I owe this granddaughter, what I owe my students—these are the things that make me whole because holding her and that wonderful time teaching, each is the moment that gives me pause and rebalances all the world.
The worst part of anxiety is believing that you are not good enough, believing that you are a fraud and that at any moment other people will discover your secret, at any moment you will be unmasked and all that you care about will be taken away—because that is the dirty little secret about anxiety that is the everything about anxiety that is the worst thing.
Mention a coastal city notable for both its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters as well as the human-made cancers of racism and generational poverty, and most people across the U.S. will think New Orleans, especially now as we confront the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the decade of a city rebuilding itself.
However, South Carolina’s Charleston fits that same complicated and troubling profile.
Charleston also shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve poor and black children and families, which has resulted in both cities being the target of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven mostly by political and ideological forces.
While I have regularly criticized mainstream media for covering education and education reform carelessly, I was genuinely impressed with The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) publishing an extensive and detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.
This news account and the related data are actually not new for those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (how they are funded, how teachers are assigned, how students are tracked, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students, black and high-poverty children.
Charleston is just one example of the Corridor of Shame that has been highlighted in SC for decades, in fact, through the legal system and a widely heralded documentary.
It also isn’t news that the political leadership and even the public in SC have failed to acknowledge the problems of racial and socioeconomic inequity in any real ways that address public policy.
Nonetheless, the P&C‘s Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to change all that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, challenges that are inextricable from confronting racism and poverty.
First, I must emphasize that reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a narrow debate about school choice is a fatal distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.
Next, as I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks (and think tanks masquerading as university departments) will never represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps any different or larger goals—such as educational equity for black and poor children.
On the SCPC’s web site, they clearly express their one and only position:
The South Carolina Policy Council was founded in 1986 as an independent, private, non-partisan research organization to promote the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty and responsibility in the state of South Carolina.
The Op-Ed response to Left Behind, then, is peppered with cherry-picking, overstatements, and loaded nods to “gold-standard research,” but the claims are advocacy, and not credible conclusions about either the results or promise of school choice in its many and shifting forms (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).
Having spent more than a year doing a book-length examination of school choice, I regret that the debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.
- Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home. (See this discussion of “charterness.”)
- Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increased scores are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—none of which have anything to do with the consequences of choice and all of which expose those “gains” as false success.
- School choice, notably charter schools, has been strongly linked with increasing racial and socioeconomic inequity: increased segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.
- SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools (see analysis of 2011 and 2013 data here), and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.
The research on school choice does not support the claims made by SCPC, and the rhetoric is also deeply flawed.
School choice advocates often fall back on “poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy.”
However, several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.
The greatest flaw is suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is itself a lie, a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks (see here and here).
In its most disturbing form, then, school choice advocacy is a distraction from the consequences of racism and poverty, both of which are reflected in and perpetuated by the education system.
Further, arguing that we must see school choice as a solution fails for essential conditions in a democracy.
For example, no one should have to wait for the Invisible Hand of the market so they have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first secure the foundations of public institutions.
As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
A full and robust commitment to public institutions, specifically universal public education, is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market.The paradox is thus: In order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary in terms of health care, justice, safety, or education.
As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but has too often exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.
The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.
In America, black children don’t get to be children, Stacey Patton
In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.
Study: For Behavioral Problems, Black Students See Cops, Whites See Docs, Kenrya Rankin Naasel
A study in the latest issue of Sociology of Education found what many parents already know: When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor. It also revealed that schools with larger populations of black students have overall higher suspension rates, while their whiter counterparts had more kids enrolled in special needs programs. Schools with large Hispanic populations were less likely to call the either the police or a doctor.
In this article, the author examines how school- and district-level racial/ethnic and socioeconomic compositions influence schools’ use of different types of criminalized and medicalized school discipline. Using a large data set containing information on over 60,000 schools in over 6,000 districts, the authors uses multilevel modeling and a group-mean modeling strategy to answer several important questions about school discipline. First, how do school- and district-level racial and ethnic compositions influence criminalized school discipline and medicalization? Second, how do levels of school and district economic disadvantage influence criminalized school discipline and medicalization? Third, how does district-level economic disadvantage moderate the relationship between school racial/ethnic composition and criminalized school discipline and medicalization? The results generally support hypotheses that schools and districts with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies, including suspensions and expulsion or police referrals or arrests, and less likely to medicalize students through behavioral plans put in place through laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, results from cross-level interaction models suggest that district-level economic disadvantage moderates the influence of school racial composition on criminalized school discipline and medicalization.
The study builds on prior research that looked at how educators assessed the behavior of individual students based on race.
“The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors — for example, classroom disruptions, talking back — white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn,” said Ramey.
Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan
Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.
How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?
But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).
And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.
For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.
Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.
Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.
Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.
— chris thinnes (@ChrisThinnes) August 20, 2015
Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.
Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.
For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.
Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.
Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.
Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.
In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:
I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.
It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.
Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.
“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.
Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.
From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.
The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.
The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.
Teaching literature as a high school English teacher often requires covering the canon through survey courses. This means, of course, we teachers of English often assign and discuss writers and works we simply do not like.
But unlike my ambivalent thoughts about Frost’s poetry and snobbery, I simply detest misreading Frost and those incessant posters:
In fact, one of my favorite, ironically, poems to teach was “The Road Not Taken”—first, because it lends itself to stressing the importance of reading the text carefully to students, and second because many if not most of my students had seen the posters and had the poem mis-taught to them in previous grades.
Typically, the end of the poem is used to make vapid and inspirational claims about being different, taking the path others have failed to try.
However, even a slightly careful reading of the poem reveals that the text itself no fewer than three times states the two roads are essentially the same: “as just as fair,” “Had worn them really about the same,” and “And both that morning equally lay.”
The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.
Except Frost notes early in the poem that the two roads were “worn . . . really about the same.” There is no difference. It’s only later, when the narrator recounts this moment, that he says he took the road less traveled.
“This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes.
“The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”
And thus we are forced to confront the Jefferson quote above: many in the U.S. see a message of rugged individualism in everything they see regardless of that theme existing or evidence confirming that ideology.
If this were confined to poetry, we could simply let it lie, but consider two aspects of Ronald Reagan’s political career—long enough in the past to view somewhat dispassionately but recent enough to remain relevant during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign years.
Reagan gained a tremendous amount of political capital on his “welfare queen” refrain, and somehow maintained his Teflon image despite George H.W. Bush’s charge that Reaganomics was “voodoo economics.”
Both can be traced to the public’s tendency to see what they want to see despite evidence to the contrary. The U.S. public believes poverty is the result of laziness and continue to harbor racist associations with both poverty and that laziness. As I have shared, just recently I received a negative response to a piece I wrote on racism that blamed inequity on single black mothers, despite single white mothers far outnumbering and Hispanic/Latino single mothers surpassing single black mothers.
The Great American Myth includes that the wealthy have earned their wealthy, the poor (lazy) deserve their poverty, education is the great equalizer, and anybody can succeed if he/she would just work hard enough, and evidence (the abundance of evidence) to the contrary is nearly worthless against that mythology.
This is not simply about partisan politics—because the same proclivity to see what we believe and thus not recognize systemic forces corrupts mainstream efforts at both education reform and daily teaching.
Just as a few examples, policies and practices built on “grit” research and narratives as well as “growth mindset” are essentially flawed because they fall victim to gazing on the individual, diagnosing deficits, and then correcting those deficits—a misdiagnosis that misread the consequences of systemic inequity as individual culpability.
The harsh reality is that in the U.S. educational and social/economic success are the result not of effort or merit, but the coincidence of any person’s socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
Claims that teaching poor and black/brown children “grit” and a “growth mindset” will reap great rewards for those students are trapped in the deficit gaze narrowly on individuals—not unlike those who misread Frost or continue to cling to Reagan’s nasty “welfare queen” scapegoat.
This is where the critical imperative requires that we always step back from our belief systems and force ourselves to consider the entire and complex reality driven by both systemic and individual dynamics.
So if we loop back to the actual woman Reagan used to create the “welfare queen” smear campaign on all single black mothers who are poor, we discover a very complicated reality about this individual woman, but we also must temper ourselves against drawing sweeping generalizations that are not supported by easily accessible evidence.
And we should also ask why many are apt to make such damning jumps from one black woman to all black women when those same people do not make such leaps about individual serial killers, often white males who are well educated.
It is a trivial nerd/teacher fantasy to hope that we stop the misreading of a rather boring Robert Frost poem, but it is no small thing to expect us to stop allowing claims that are at their core racist and classist (“grit,” “growth mindset,” the “word gap,” etc.) to hide behind the mask of science or the cult of celebrity driving them, it is no small thing to speak against presidential candidates who continue to race-bait (black-on-black crime) and poverty-bait (dead-beats on welfare) the public as Reagan did.
To do so, we must have the courage to choose a road “less traveled by,” a journey that begins with taking one step back.
Please View (and Listen)
James Baldwin and Black Lives, Eddie Glaude
James Baldwin and Black Lives (C-Span) 5/18/15
Professor Eddie Glaude talked about James Baldwin, the underlying meanings of race in America, and the emergence of the phrase “black lives matter” on social media. He discussed the tradition of Black Democratic Perfectionism, the idea of democratic individuality in the service of justice. He argued that the phrase “black lives matter,” which emerged on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, is rooted in Black Democratic Perfectionism and is a tool that reflects African American social, economic, and political struggles, and rejects the idea of white supremacy.
The Legacy of James Baldwin (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) 6/11/15
Following a screening of the newly restored documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the filmmaker Karen Thorsen; Tufts professor Peniel Joseph; poets Nikky Finney and Rose Styron; and James Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart discussed his call for equality and its relevance today. Kim McLarin, a frequent contributor to WGBH’s Emmy-award winning program, Basic Black, moderates. This forum was in partnership with PEN New England.
Students at my university are required to attend Cultural Life Programs (CLPs) as part of their graduation requirements. Once several years ago, I was the featured speaker at a CLP on education reform, and during that talk I noted I was against accountability.
The Q and A prompted by the talk was vibrant, but after the talk, I was approached by a colleague who asked if I were being provocative—not serious, in other words—about being against accountability. I assured him I was in fact against accountability, which left him so frazzled the discussion ended there.
After posting a blog about critical pedagogy and the Other, I received similar and numerous comments about critical thinking—educators who likely believe that they and I are mostly in agreement on education but cannot fathom my rejecting how traditional schooling approaches so-called “critical thinking skills.”
First, there is no way to frame identifying and teaching (as well as lessons involving worksheets and testing) critical thinking skills and remain critical.
The essential flaw with critical thinking skills (see HERE and HERE) is, as I noted in the previous post, the reductive nature of a technocratic approach to knowledge, teaching, and learning. In other words, to isolate (and thus, approach analytically) a series of “critical” skills in order to deposit them in students in the hopes that those skills added up equal critical thinking is the problem.
And as I have noted about accountability, that skills approach is at least the dominant, if not the only way in which “critical thinking” is framed in traditional schooling.
Being critical is not a collection of isolated skills, but a way of being that can be fostered, not imposed (see Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education). Therefore, at best we can model being critical and provide for students examples of critical confrontations such as Ta-Nehisi Coates on the film Crash or Son of Baldwin on Straight Outta Compton.
Let me stress, then, that my rejecting the technocratic approach to “critical thinking” cannot be solved through technocratic means: defining, teaching skills, etc.
Next, and more complex, I think, is the concept of the Other in terms of how that relates to critical pedagogy.
My critical scholarship and my critical public work prompt oddly parallel responses, for example.
Traditional scholarship frames my critical work as the Other because critical perspectives reject the norms of the academy—quantitative data and objectivity most significantly. Instead, critical pedagogy starts here:
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.
Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer
The claimed apolitical pose of traditional scholarship marginalizes as the Other critical perspectives. However, 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.
But my public work is often challenged for being too academic, too scholarly since critical perspectives are prone to wax philosophic (using “the Other,” for example) or depend on terms such as “hegemony.”
Regardless of the context, then, critical perspectives are themselves likely to be marginalized (not rigorous or too esoteric), ignored, or silenced—especially as Dye and Spelic have stressed if you are a woman, or even more significantly, if you are a black woman.
And therein lies the next level of the Other I haven’t teased out well enough so far.
Yes, critical perspectives are brushed off as the Other, but more importantly, to be critical means to always listen  to, consider, and be empathetic to the perspective of the Other.
Being critical means that we take the pose of the Other in all the forms that exist. This requires the setting aside of ones privilege and even ones status as the Other.
It is in that context that Paulo Freire confronts how norms act against the Other:
To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)
Being critical is about self-awareness, empathy, and the perpetual state of questioning the nature of assumptions in the context of how those assumptions work to perpetuate power as well as to deny power.
Being critical becomes in traditional contexts, both academic and public, simultaneously the state of being the Other as well as assuming the perspective(s) of the Other.
Posters, worksheets, skills lists, and tests—none of these address being critical because all of these are trapped inside the so-called objective and analytic assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning.
They are as lifeless as they are void of critical—and they do not serve students or anyone well.
 For example, in whose interest is it to shame a writer for splitting an infinitive? And what is the historical and linguistic context of that so-called rule? How does focusing on a linguistically questionable construction allow the masking of the substance of the claims?