Privilege and Power in Education Reform

For it is true, at least in my experience, that whites, having been largely convinced of our ability, indeed entitlement, to affect the world around us and mold it to our liking, are very much like children when we discover that at least for some things—like fundamentally altering the system of privilege and domination that first invest us with such optimism—it will take more than good intentions, determined will, and that old stand-by we euphemistically call ‘elbow grease’.

–Tim Wise, White Like Me

I pulled this quote from a reading my students did for today’s session on Race, Whiteness, and Allyhood in my Youth Empowerment course. The course itself is a community-based learning course wherein students work for a semester in a community organization serving youth. Given that I work at a largely white, wealthy, private school it seemed pertinent to include a day on race and allyhood.

Any scholarly discussion on race is rarely productive without the accompanying discourse on privilege and power. My student leaders in this course (it’s actually a student led course which is very awesome) were a bit nervous about facilitating a discussion on race and privilege but they did a great job. I was especially pleased when they highlighted this quote from Tim Wise because I think it is applicable to more than societal racism; it is also true when speaking about education reform.

In an election year, issues of educational reform are often danced around but never dissected (see previous posts on Romney and President Obama for summaries of their plans for education reform). Candidates espouse overused ideas that will allegedly close the achievement gap and equalize learning outcomes across racial and income groups. I call ‘bull’ on that (see Why the Achievement Gap Has Little to do with Students for why I disagree with current reform efforts). Their ideas are nothing but injections aimed at reducing symptoms instead of addressing causes of what we educators know to be genetic educational disorders (i.e., our education system has evolved to continuously produce the same illnesses generation after generation).

But today in class, I began to view their ideas in a new light. Instead of criticizing their ill-researched and discriminatory suggestions for reform, I should think about why they truly believe these plans will be effective. And the answer lies in Tim Wise’s quote: having been largely convinced of our ability, indeed entitlement, to affect the world around us and mold it to our liking…

In other words, our privileged belief that as educated and determined people we can solve the problem of the achievement gap with ingenuity and hard work is in effect one of the perpetrators of the continued achievement gap. Are our assumptions that we can fix anything rooted in our privileged positions within the social context of that issue?

If you ask any college educated person why there is an achievement gap, they will quickly give you a myriad of responses including: lack of parental involvement, unequal funding, unqualified teachers, lack of educational values. And these variables may indeed be (and in fact they are) contributors to the achievement gap. But they are not causes of the achievement gap. To say they are is too naive a view.

Having privilege in this situation means that you have the benefit of not being an ‘insider’in the struggle to close the gap. You are not the one whose children attend these schools, but you are the one who votes on policies affecting these schools. You are not the one whose test scores are in the bottom quartile, but instead you are the one who knows how to interpret test scores. You are not the teacher instructing students whose reading levels span 5 grades, but instead you are the one who always read above grade level. You therefore have the ability to simplify the problem to 4 or 5 influential variables that if fixed, would solve the problem of differential learning outcomes. Well isn’t that jolly?

The people who are on the ground, in the classrooms, in the neighborhoods, and in the homes live with the achievement gap on a daily basis—not just when it hits the news during an election year. They are privy to the complex intersection of social, cultural, and political variables perpetuating the inequities in our school system. If asked, these people do not point to parents, teachers, or money as the problem. They point to an infrastructure that facilitates unequal access to learning opportunities. These people—our teachers, students, parents, researchers—who struggle to close the gap on a daily basis do not have the privilege of treating reform like a ‘one stop shop’, ‘one size fits all’ enterprise. They are forced to dissect the cyclical factors affecting students’ achievement if they are to even begin to talk about ‘reform’. In fact, for the disadvantaged/other/marginalized/oppressed people who do not have situational privilege in this context, reform is an empty word. The issue is really restructuring.

Restructuring our educational goals, our pedagogical tools, our language surrounding diverse students, and our responsibilities to the children of our country. In essence, we, the privileged must acknowledge our role in maintaining a status quo that pushes others to the margins while we enjoy the benefits our privilege affords us. Like proposing one-dimensional solutions to dynamic problems.