My Journey in Teaching #BlackLifeMatters- Day 3

Almost every Blackademic I know is figuring out how to address the reality that #BlackLifeMatters. Some are participating in local protests. Others are writing their political representatives. I am doing what I do best–teach.

I am currently teaching a course entitled The Tradition of African American Education and the Black Bourgeoisie. While the title is long, it really embodies what I am attempting to do in this course. First, I want students to understand that education and schooling can and do look differently to different people. Second, I want them to recognize the purpose of schooling as determined by those for whom the school exists. Third, I want them to learn the history of education as dismissive, segregated, and unequitable. Finally, I hope they leave this course knowing that our current educational system insists on dividing people based upon social characteristics, and that sometimes, that division is positive.

But I couldn’t do all of that without giving students historical and contemporary context, hence the inclusion of the Black Bourgeoisie. When it comes down to it, the Black Bourgeoisie was borne in concert with Historically Black Colleges and Universities because in the mid to late 1800s, one could not exist without the other. In fact, in the beginning, the Black Bourgeoisie defined themselves by their level of education and consequent professions. HBCUs in turn, defined themselves by the success of their alumni. For many decades it was a symbiotic relationship.

And then came desegregation. I wrote a piece a while back that referenced what happened to the Black teacher work force when schools became desegregated. More than decimating the work force, desegregation whitened Black children’s education. Not only did Black children rarely see a Black or Brown face in their schools, they never saw themselves represented in their textbooks. The history of Black life was erased with the bang of a gavel. And we still haven’t fully rewritten the tale.

But HBCUs remain storehouses of the Black narrative. There is where you find murals painted by Black hands; words written by Black authors; pictures taken of Black faces; conversations borne of the Black experience. HBCUs are where we find the history policies and people tried to take from us.

So I decided to conduct my course off-campus, AT a Historically Black College or University. Fortunately, many members of my family attended HBCUs, my father works with HBCUs through his small business, and about half of my friends claim HBCUs. I therefore was able to make an informed decision about the best place for my students to engage Black history and Black life:  Fisk University.

If you’ve never heard of this school, do yourself a favor and look it up. If you are nodding your head affirming my choice of Fisk, I am nodding back at you. In only 72 hours, my students have experienced more than I can give them in a traditional on-campus course. We are living in Fisk dorms (yes, me too). We are eating in Fisk’s dining hall. We are attending Fisk events. We are visiting Fisk classes. We are meeting Fisk people.

But that isn’t enough.

My students are also spending time at Tennessee State University. I wanted to create a multi-perspective course so I was fortunate that TSU and Fisk are neighbors, and that both were willing to partner with me in this endeavor. While we live at Fisk, we will be taking classes, sitting in on club meetings, and attending other events at Tennessee State University as well. My students have Fisk and TSU student hosts whose academic and extracurricular schedules they will follow for two weeks.

Another week of the course is spent in coursework with me. We began this morning by participating in the annual MLK march in Nashville. Tomorrow is when we start to review texts by E. Franklin Frazier, Carter Woodson, and Lawrence Otis Graham. Class also includes heading 3 hours west to Memphis to visit the Civil Rights Museum before spending the following day at the public library in the Civil Rights Room. My class is where they will be held accountable for the synthesis of experience with content. After class is when I treat them to lunch or dinner at a variety of restaurants, all serving soul food.

I have no idea how this is going to go. I can tell you that it’s 9:09pm on Day 3 and I am exhausted. We are settling in, making friends, and preparing for what should be a life changing experience. Just as all learning should be.


Integrated But Unequal: Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ve been holding my tongue on the issue of segregated schools (mostly because I’ve been wagging my tongue about one of the facilitators of segregated schools: charter schools), but after reading an article yesterday about mixed income housing complete with a back door for the lower income residents to use , the time for silence is over. Though I’ve never mentioned it in any blog posts, I’ve long been a proponent of mixed income housing. In graduate school, I did some research with Claire Smrekar on the HOPE VI project: a federal housing initiative to tear down low income communities and rebuild mixed income housing in the exact location. People who previously lived in the neighborhood are given priority for housing once the new construction is complete.

While I like the idea of mixed income for reasons I will explain in a second, I do not like the structure of the program(s). In summary, the neighborhood has a certain number of houses dedicated to different income groups. No, the lower income houses are not on separate streets, nor are they subpar compared to the higher income houses. Essentially, all the homes look the same, are the same size and have similar layouts. Higher income residents pay their mortgage and other bills the same way they would in any community. The lower income residents who qualify for housing assistance, have reduced rent and either all or some of their utilities covered. In exchange for living in such fancy digs however, there are tons of rules for residents (mostly the lower income residents) including: no cars parked on the street, no toys in the yard, the blinds must not be damaged, children cannot be outside after certain hours, once a month the neighborhood ‘manager’ comes to inspect how well you are caring for the home. Further, the residents receiving housing assistance must also meet one of the following criteria: be working at least part time, be enrolled in school full time, or be able to demonstrate (read: prove to the neighborhood manager) you are searching for employment. Finally, residents are required to attend workshops once a month about things like ‘money management’, ‘providing a safe environment for your children’, and ‘resume writing’. I don’t have to explain why I dislike all of the rules because it is fairly obvious. For those who’ve missed the problem here, I have two words: cultural whitening.

But moving on…I have long said that the most effective way we will reduce variability in quality/achievement across public schools is to ensure every public school serves an economically diverse student population. Here is why that matters: schools are funded primarily through property taxes. The only people who pay property taxes are people who own property. The people who own property tend to be middle and upper class, and white. Consequently, schools in locations where middle and upper class people live (and pay property taxes) are much better funded than schools in neighborhoods full of renters. What’s more is that wealthier parents are also those parents most likely to be highly educated themselves. They therefore have the cultural and social capital to know how the system works. In essence, they enact their power in a democratic social institution and force public schools to be good. Whether that’s through their participation in school leadership (Board of Education, PTO/PTA), through parental involvement, or through financial contributions, they make sure their children are receiving a quality education. If lower income and working class children were in schools with higher income children, they would [theoretically] reap the benefits of higher income parents’ advocacy.

So how do we make this happen in an era of income (and racially) segregated schools? Through mixed income housing. That way, the money homeowners pay in property taxes will go to the same schools their lower income neighbor’s children attend. Beyond school funding, I do believe the presence of middle class and high income families in a community would also change the local economic market. On one hand, when communities are gentrified, we see the disappearance of the mom and pop shops in favor of Whole Foods, Starbucks, and any trendy cupcake shop. I do not approve of this. But with a mixed income neighborhood, the hope is that the local small businesses, many of which are owned by neighborhood residents, can remain while also bringing in perhaps not mega chain stores, but instead, higher quality food sources, better access to healthcare, and more reliable public services (e.g., public transportation, parks, community centers). Let me be clear here, I am not in favor of ‘urban renewal’ (read: gentrification). I do not believe people should be displaced from their homes/communities. I do not believe neighborhoods should lose their history because people who do not live in that area think it’s ‘dangerous’. I do however believe in the power of money. I do believe that consolidated poverty is the root cause of many of the issues we see in lower income areas. What do you expect to happen when you put a lot of people with little resources in a confined space with almost no access to basic necessities like quality food, healthcare, or education? How do you expect them to succeed when you’ve set them up to be crabs in a barrel under a Darwin-esque regime of survival guised as meritocracy?

But I digress.

My actual point here is to outline the ways in which I am rethinking my solution of mixed income housing to solve the problem of inequitable school funding (and all its concomitants). I still believe everything I said about the value of mixed income housing; however, I am expanding my theory to include not just the context of schooling, but also the practices within schools.

I’ve never believed that racial integration would eradicate racism. That theory to me has always been illogical and flawed. Proximity doesn’t change attitudes; it leads to polarization and stronger identification with in-groups. INTERACTION changes attitudes. It really is a catch 22 because we know that between-group interactions lead to higher achievements (because of shared knowledge/skills), but we need teachers, policies, and school climates supportive of that interaction. Diversity means nothing if there are no relationships between diverse peoples.

mixed class

Beverly Tatum made that clear in her classic text, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? It is dangerous to believe that mixed income (and consequently, mixed race) schools will magically make everything better. It will not. Those attitudes will trickle into the classroom and before we know it, separate but equal will be WITHIN the schools, not BETWEEN schools. As we see in the article about mixed income housing in New York, those in power not only want to be in power, they want to be SEEN being in power. They want to FEEL in power. What does this mean for the schooling experiences of low income children? Will they be made to sit in the back of the classroom? Will they have separate lockers? Different teachers? We already know that even in the mixed race schools we do have, students of color are labeled special education and tracked into remedial courses at disproportionate rates. They are also suspended and expelled at rates three times that of white students. If this is the outcome of mixed income schools, I am pulling a Diane Ravitch. I rescind my support of mixed income housing and mixed income schools. I’d rather my child be in an underfunded school with fewer resources than be treated like an outcast in a well-funded school. I can supplement my child’s education, but I can’t repair my child’s broken spirit.

This is not a choice I or any parent should have to make. When will we wake up from the reality that we are sleepwalking back to Plessy?











The Bigotry of “Achievement” (a graduation speech)

Yesterday I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a local high school graduation. The high school is an urban charter school serving primarily low income students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. After recieving positive feedback on the speech, I was asked to share my words. Here they are.


Twelve years ago I was 16 years old and graduating from high school. I was super excited because my brother had graduated the year before and I remembered how much fun the family had celebrating his high school graduation. Just like last year, my grandparents drove to Charlotte, North Carolina from Norfolk, Virginia to share in my accomplishment. Given that even then, my grandparents were super old and still willing to drive that far, I knew my graduation was a big deal.

I was number 563 to walk across the stage. Three years earlier, when I was a freshmen, there were over 900 students in my class. On graduation day, there were closer to 600. Somewhere along the way, we’d lost 300 students—300 would-be, might-have-been, probably were, friends. Interestingly, I didn’t notice that until graduation day when I saw the total number. I admittedly looked at the number to see how long I’d have to sit there before walking across the stage, but I inadvertently stumbled upon the realization that 1/3 of my class was missing. How, in the three intervening years, had I not noticed that?

For some reason, the missing students really bothered me. I remember asking my parents why there were so fewer students and they hypothesized that maybe a lot of them transferred schools. But given that every year new students transferred in, that should balance out. I asked my older brother and he brushed me off the way only older siblings can, with a slightly hostile “why do you care? YOU’RE graduating”. But I DID care.

Since we weren’t doing much of anything at school anymore I had plenty of time to ask my teachers about my missing classmates. I honestly don’t recall what most of them said, but I do remember one teacher’s response: she said ‘given the students that go to this school, I’m surprised 2/3 of you all made it this far.’

At the time, I didn’t realize what her comment really meant. I didn’t analyze or even attend to the bias underlying such an offensive statement. But now, 12 years later, I am infuriated at what she said.

“Given the students that go to this school….”—My high school had about 3000 kids in it. I would say 60% were White and the other 40% were ethnic minorities. Despite its racial diversity, the school was fairly homogenous when it came to income. Most of the students—myself included—came from lower income or working class backgrounds. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to these type of demographic characteristics because frankly—I didn’t have to. I was part of a relatively large majority and had the privilege of not having to notice difference.

But once I left high school and attended college, I realized very quickly what that teacher’s comment really meant. She meant poor kids. Working class kids. Kids from single parent households. And kids whose parents may not speak English. She was surprised that kids ‘like that’ could graduate high school. The more I thought about that conversation from 4 months prior, the more determined I became to not be a ‘kid like that’.

If you fast forward 12 years to present day, I now teach here at [school]. I teach in the education department, mostly about public schools and how they treat ‘kids like that’. I teach about issues of opportunity and access, parent involvement, education policies, and education reform efforts. But really, no matter what the class is, I teach about students like you. I teach about your strengths, your attributes, and most of all, your potential.

To do so, I must first help my college students understand who you are, but more importantly, who and what you are not. You are not ‘disadvantaged’, you are not ‘at risk’, nor are you ‘exceptional’. You are not a deviant statistic who made it despite…being poor, or of color, or from a single parent household. You are not someone whose high school graduation is the end all be all. You are not someone who would allow others to set expectations for you. But that is exactly what is done in schools, and what has been done to you and to me.

From 6th through 12th grade I was in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. For those who are unfamiliar, IB is a college prep program with a heavy emphasis on analytical thinking, problem solving, and civic engagement. In 11th grade, we were required to talk to the director of our program about colleges to which we might apply. I was ready. I’d had my list complete since 8th grade. I knew I was going to apply to Brown, NYU, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and Columbia. When I gave him my list, he looked at me and said ‘kids like you don’t get into schools like these. You might want to lower your expectations a bit.’

I was 15 and had just been told that I wouldn’t be accepted into the schools I’d wanted to attend since I was 12. I was hurt and angry so I told my mother what he said. She was livid. To this day, she talks about how inappropriate that teacher was for telling me to not even apply to those schools. But I’m not angry about it because I get it. I get that because of my skin color and my family’s income bracket, I was presumed to be at a disadvantage when compared to my white or wealthy peers. He assumed that I didn’t have the intellectual ability or maybe the financial means to succeed at an Ivy League College. Or perhaps, as he accused my brother of being a year prior, he thought I was a criminal with behavior problems a top tier institution wouldn’t tolerate. He, like so many people in this country, viewed me as having a deficit.

Because of my ‘disadvantaged’ background, before I even entered Pre-K I was labeled ‘at risk’. This is a phrase I’m sure most of you are familiar with. At-risk. If there is any phrase I hate, it’s this one. At-risk is what I call a proxy term for ‘poor or working class or immigrant or of color’. I am annoyed when people lack the courage to say what they mean, but I am incensed when people label others based on demographic characteristics. What exactly was I at risk for? Teen pregnancy? Being in a gang? Getting straight As? Becoming a professor?

Rest assured no one who called me at risk ever thought I’d be a professor. On the contrary, to them, I was a statistic at risk for academic failure, unemployment, crime, and imprisonment. Because of that…because they expected so little of me, the bar was set low. In elementary school the goal was to be able to read at grade level. In middle school, attention turns to basic math skills. In high school, they just wanted me to graduate. That’s it. There was no mention of Honors or AP courses. No expectations of being student body president, homecoming queen or captain of the track team. Those expectations were reserved for other students. People were therefore shocked when I skipped first grade. No one expected me to be reading 3 grade levels ahead in 2nd grade. No one thought I’d get straight As in a rigorous college prep program. And no one—including the director of my high school IB program—thought I’d end up graduating with honors from an Ivy League College.

Because of those successes, I was given an alternative label—exceptional. I find this label as offensive as disadvantaged and at risk. Calling me exceptional is basically saying ‘you did well even though you weren’t supposed to.’ What’s more is that what counts as exceptional for me would never be exceptional for the people who insist on calling me such. Graduating high school is an expectation many people have of their children. But when poor students or students of color do just that, for some reason, it is an exceptional accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong. Today you are honored for a great achievement. Some of you may be the first in your family to graduate high school so this is an especially celebratory occasion. Many of you are now headed to college and others will brave entry into the workforce. Each of these paths is evidence of investment in yourself, your family and your community. But this is not all you have to offer, nor is this all you will accomplish. Because if this is it, you justify them calling me disadvantaged and at risk. You make it okay for your little brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends to be called the same.

I encourage you to raise the bar. By going to college you make college graduation the norm. By seeking job training you demonstrate how short term investments yield long term gains. That is where the bar should be for all students, not just those fortunate enough to be born into privileged circumstances.

So I do not call you exceptional because of your graduation today. I do not call you successful or accomplished or any of those things. Because to do so, undermines what you’ve yet to do. You will continue to achieve because frankly, there is no other option. You have to. I need you to. I need to know that one day, I will be able to throw out my lesson plans about unfair labels, inequitable opportunity in schools, and implicit teacher bias. I need you to prove that what I teach my students about urban schools and urban students is true. That you are not disadvantaged or at risk. That you not only have the right to educational opportunities, but will also take advantage of them in ways that engender long-term success. I need you each to be vigilant of others’ words, but more so of how your actions support or discredit their words.

Every single one of you got here today because you worked hard, you went to class, you paid attention, asked for help when you needed it and helped others when they needed it. You did this, not despite your demographic characteristics, but in addition to being given unfair labels and low expectations. High school graduation is a stepping stone across the river of life. I urge you not to let others assign labels to you and expectations of you that will leave you stranded in the middle of the water. Instead, view today as one of many stones upon which you will step as you decide who you will be and how to define ‘exceptional’ for yourself.

Congratulations class of 2014!



Voting NO for [Faux] Reform. Money Won’t Fix Our Education System.

Now that we are a little over a week beyond the defeat of Amendment 66 in Colorado, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. Surprisingly to some—most notably those who have not read my blog carefully—I voted against Amendment 66. This may seem odd because yes, I am an advocate for education reform and staunchly support equitable learning opportunities. But what I am not is someone who believes money will fix our broken education system. Do not get me wrong, many public schools are sorely lacking in financial resources; however, money is a band aid for systemic inequalities. I am more interested in addressing housing segregation, teacher preparation, standardization, music/art/PE in school, and academic rigor. These, more than anything, are what I believe will affect sustainable change.


For those who do not live in Colorado, let me overview Amendment 66:

“Had it been approved, Amendment 66 would have increased the state’s income tax to raise the amount of state tax revenue spent on public school districts by about 16.6%, from $5.5 billion under the current law, to a little over $6.4 billion. Once the increases for charter school funding were added, this would have amounted to a $950 million increase.[2] Amendment 66 would also have allowed for the implementation of the new Public School Finance Act Senate Bill 213. The new tax and education funding formulas found in SB 13-213 would have gone into effect in the 2015-16 fiscal year. At the time of the November 2013 vote the statewide per-pupil funding was $6,652 and was projected to rise to $7,426 under SB 13-213.[3][4][5] The organization “Colorado Commits to Kids” sponsored the initiative.[6]

Colorado’s current personal income tax rate is a flat 4.63%.[7] Amendment 66 would have imposed a graduated income tax with rate increases according to the following income criteria:[8]

  • Any taxable income of up to $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5%.
  • Any taxable income surpassing $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5.9%.

The proposed increases represented an 8% increase in income tax on those making less than $75,000 per year and a 26.6% increase in income tax on any taxable income over $75,000 per year.”

Colorado Commits to Kids campaigned that Amendment 66 would have allowed for the following:

  • Schools can hire thousands of new teachers to reduce class sizes
  • Teachers can provide students with the one-on-one time they need
  • Taxpayers will have confidence that new money is used only for education reforms or enhancements to existing programs
  • Districts will have more flexibility to restore funding for art and music classes, sports programs and transportation


Now, this all looks great to someone who is not engaged with social and political issues in education. My biggest concerns here are twofold: first, who is tracking the spending of this money? What guarantees do we have that these funds would go toward hiring more qualified (notice that this word is absent from campaign promises) teachers and implementing art programs? There is no guarantee. This piece of legislation merely provides local government boards with the option to spend the money as they see fit. Second, where is the evidence that more money directly contributes to higher achievement?

Allow me to answer: there is none.

What we have is evidence that money spent in ways that would benefit student learning results in higher achievement. Given the unique needs of individual students, communities and schools, there is far too much trust in our local government to a) know what students in their district need to achieve and b) to actually spend the money accordingly.  If you’ve never researched your local school board members I encourage you to do so now. You will find that very few of them have any experience in education from a practitioner’s perspective or a policy perspective. Most school board members are parents, retirees, or people looking to boost their community reputation to increase the customer base for their primary occupation. These people are not trained to investigate issues of education reform, to read educational data, nor to create educational policies. Yet, this Amendment would’ve increased their power to do so.

Decades of educational data tell us there are dozens of mediators between money and academic achievement. Here are a few:

  • food programs
  • healthcare in schools
  • extracurriculars
  • qualified teachers
  • more rigorous course offerings (e.g., AP and IB courses)
  • new school buildings
  • up to date textbooks
  • transportation to and from school
  • more diverse course offerings

Can money help implement all of those? Absolutely. Then why hasn’t it? (See above statement about unqualified and under-informed people making decisions about educational spending) Race to the Top is an excellent example of how throwing money at schools will not affect reform. I thoroughly discuss this in a previous post, so let’s look at some other evidence.

I want to look at the correlation between per pupil expenditure (since this was 66’s primary point—Colorado is under-spending per pupil) and district performance. The top spenders in 2011 were New York ($19,076), the District of Columbia ($18,475), Alaska ($16,674), New Jersey ($15,968) and Vermont ($15,925).

If we look at it by enrollment, New York City School District in New York ($19,770) had the highest current spending per student in 2011, followed by Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts ($19,181), Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland ($15,483), Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland ($15,421), and Howard County Schools in Maryland ($15,139).

Using 2011 data from the Dept of Education, we can see that across math, reading, science and writing, those high spenders have between 8%-58% of their students performing at or above proficiency levels. Here is the state by state breakdown:

New York: 29%-36%; DC: 8%-22%; Alaska: 26%-37%; New Jersey: 34%-51%; Vermont: 41%-49%; Massachusetts: 44%-58%; Maryland: 32%-48%

Conversely, states spending the least per student in 2011 were Mississippi ($7,928), Arizona ($7,666), Oklahoma ($7,587), Idaho ($6,824) and Utah ($6,212). The percent of students performing at or above proficiency in 2011 was as follows:

Mississippi: 19%-25%; Arizona: 23%-34%; Oklahoma: 26%-33%; Idaho: 33%-39%; Utah: 33%-43

Now, without comparing mean test scores, I would hazard a guess that the performance of New York, DC and Alaska is not significantly different from the performance of the low-spending states. The remaining four high spenders are probably doing statistically significantly better but with that many students taking a test, it won’t take much to meet statistical significance. That said, having only 15% more students performing at or above proficiency does not warrant spending 3 times as much per pupil. What effect is all that money having???

Under Amendment 66, Colorado’s per pupil expenditure was expected to rise from $6,652 to $7,426. Following the trend of other states, this marginal increase would not have affected performance bands at all. In 2011, 39%-47% of CO students performed at or above proficiency across subject matters. This is already higher than Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma and Idaho’s performance results—all of whom have higher per pupil expenditures than Colorado.

While these are admittedly very rough comparisons, the point is clear: more money does not equate higher performance.

I continue to be baffled by the American people who believe so strongly in throwing money at problems. That strategy has not been successful (long-term) in any sector of society yet we continue to stand by our capitalist ideals.  Money, in the hands of the American people, is a divisive tool and until we figure out how to use it for good, I will always vote NO.

Race, Class and Gender Met in a Bar…

intersectionalityI want to be bell hooks when I grow up. I want to be such a bad ass scholar that I can write an essay for The Feminist Wire telling Sheryl Sandberg to get-on-my-level or sit down somewhere.


That essay is everything I need. Pieces like this written by formidable scholars are the motivation I need to fight my small battle in the arena of social justice. Just this weekend I was engaged in such a battle.

I posted the following on my Facebook wall: My mom witnessed a 10-year-old white boy peeing in his front yard in their suburban subdivision. He was hanging with his friend in front of his house, got up, walked to his front door and peed. He didn’t even pee with his back to the street; no, it was in profile. Now, if that 10-year-old boy had been black and a white neighbor saw that, what would’ve happened?

I knew when I posted that I would receive the obligatory let’s make light of the issue type of responses. Indeed, some people expressed their amusement. Some made jokes about enacting similar behavior. Some expressed their outrage. And one expressed her confusion with my anger.

I made explicit my issue: People called the cops on the black boys in the neighborhood for playing basketball AT THE BASKETBALL court in the neighborhood. In fact, they complained so much at the presence of black males (who lived in the neighborhood), the basketball court is now a skate park. If the white neighbors called the police on black boys playing basketball, imagine what would’ve happened if they’d been peeing in public. #IndecentExposure #PublicUrination #SexOffender You have only to look up statistics on juvenile arrest rates to see this reality. In fact, the National Council on Crime released a report about this in 2007.

Following this comment, one woman said it has nothing to do with race. Someone agreed and said she thought it was about cultural ideals and perhaps the people in the (middle class suburban) neighborhood. A different woman chimed in stating: I think the question concerns who can “pee” without consequence, and who can’t. I think it’s safe to assume that to some people, black youth behaving this way would be framed as bringing down the neighborhood and delinquency, and not just a non-threatening instance of “boys being boys”.

I made other random comments about white privilege, male privilege, etc. But my point seemed to be completely missed by most people responding. A friend sharing my outrage summed it up nicely to me in private conversation: This young boy’s behavior is representative of the myriad of ways he will continue to piss on things (and people) throughout his life.

The simple fact that he felt safe enough, empowered enough, entitled enough to urinate in plain view of neighbors is reflective of how social systems position white males in this country. Issues of power, privilege, race, class, and gender cannot be disaggregated and analyzed separately. The formers do not exist without the latter(s). Any discussion of privilege IS a discussion of race. A discussion of race IS a discussion of class. One must always factor in gender as a moderating variable capable of enhancing or suppressing one’s status. Is this not common knowledge?

I guess not.

Having a few days to digest this exchange, I am pushed to consider if this may be one of the reasons effective education reform has not emerged. We (read: people like Sandberg) attempt to fix problems not fully understood. Just as Ms. Sandberg cannot erase sexism through empowered (pseudo) feminism, one cannot erase educational inequality through pseudo democracy. What of poverty? Segregation? How can you propose ‘choice’ as a solution when almost half of public school children come from families for whom choice is a dream?

The convergence of race, class and gender are blatant in any public school classroom. Males are disciplined harsher than females. Black males receive the harshest discipline followed by black females and Latino males. Poor students are more likely to be enrolled in special education. Poor students of color are almost three times more likely than white students to be in special education. Poor students receive the least qualified and least experienced teachers. Expectations for female students are lower in math and science classes than for male students. Extracurricular funding is disproportionately given to male sports teams. 73% of classroom teachers are women. Only 8% of classroom teachers are ethnic minorities.

These data are not new. They tell an old story of white upper-class privilege. And the ending has yet to change. Whether you’re hawking books, peeing in the yard or trying to get an education, your road to success has already been paved. Whatever choice you have is socially constructed along with race, class and gender.

The Inevitability of Guilt When Teaching Social Justice

I just finished reading and grading 24 ten-page reflexive essays for my Urban Education course. The reflexive essay was a final essay where students were asked to discuss how they changed throughout the course; more specifically, how their thinking changed. I asked them to analyze not only how, but also why. What provoked this change? And more importantly, why does it matter?

This assignment proved difficult for them because most of them have never been asked to write ten pages about themselves that was not an autobiography. Indeed I cautioned them against telling me stories about their own schooling in contrast to the urban schools that were the case studies of our readings, documentaries and course discussions.

I also told them they could not write about capital—cultural, social, financial or navigational. Not only do they not have the sociological background to truly understand the nuanced ways in which these constructs operate, they also needed to be challenged to see beyond the obvious. Yes, your parents’ money, connections and knowledge of the education system afforded you opportunities many students do not have. I do not care to hear that narrative again. What I want to hear is how my students are thinking about themselves in relation to issues of privilege and power in a stratified system.

And that is what I got (for the most part).

First, I want to express my pride in my students. They grappled with challenging and novel material coupled with the reality of spending many hours a week working at a community center in low income neighborhoods. They had to take the public bus (for many of them this was their first time on public transportation), complete an application for social services (e.g., food stamps, cash assistance, childcare, etc) and develop a program proposal to give their community center that met the center’s needs (instead of what my students perceived the center needed). All the while, they watched documentaries chronicling the school to prison pipeline, read academic articles chock full of statistics about gentrification (i.e. urban renewal) and school segregation, and listened to a podcast about gang violence in Chicago public schools. Every day they came to class prepared (okay, maybe not all of them were prepared every day), participated in class discussion and asked deep and difficult questions about the future of urban schooling in a system that sets poor students up to fail. I could not be prouder of their investment in, and commitment to, the course.

I am therefore not surprised that so many of their reflexive essays focused on their own privilege and how the recognition of their privilege positions them to affect social change.

What did surprise me was that despite their burgeoning understanding of their own unearned racial, economic and sexual entitlements, they still view themselves as outsiders powerless to influence change.

I did not notice this trend in their writing until in the second to last paper I graded, a student pointed out that she could have written a paper arguing for how someone with power and privilege can create change, but she did not because *‘good intentions do not create sustainable results.’

After pausing for a moment, I thought back and realized that not a single student wrote about how they could use their privilege to create change. In fact, most of them expressed sentiments of hopelessness and defeatism after taking this course and learning of the systemic problems sustaining the cycle of poverty. Many replaced their prior desire to teach in urban schools (one student titled his paper “Why I Won’t Teach”) or join TFA with a new goal of teaching in private schools because they recognize they do not possess the proper ‘background’ to truly relate to the students. Every student spoke of culturally relevant teachers and warm demander pedagogy as the ray of sunshine and strand of hope in urban schools. Yet, only one student acknowledged that despite the status with which she was born, she would do her best to become an educator who knows her students, lives in the community with her students and builds long lasting relationships with students and their families.

In class, I made a point to explicitly say ‘I am not here to encourage anyone to be a classroom teacher. I am also not here to discourage anyone from being a classroom teacher. I am here to inform you about the history and context of urban public schooling. For those who want to teach, I implore you to teach where you will be most effective.’

It is funny how students latch on to certain things. My students were clearly affected by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ theory of culturally relevant teachers and her discussion of the achievement debt. They almost all recalled statistics from the introduction of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And every student quoted Allan Johnson’s writing on privilege. They also took to heart my advice to teach where you will be most effective. But they seem to have forgotten the many times I described teacher preparation programs that specifically train you in culturally relevant pedagogy. social justice

This is what I want to believe happened: they forgot. They tuned out at that point. This is the explanation I’d like to have for their insistence that despite their privileged positions they can do nothing to help those less privileged. The person in me wants to believe that my students—my smart, funny, warm hearted students—are not hiding in their privilege, using it as a reason for why they can’t truly understand the problems and will therefore do more harm than good in any urban school.

But alas, the teacher in me sees with keen eyes. I see which quotes they chose; I see their diction when speaking about black and Hispanic youth as ‘they’; I see the word guilt 81 times across 24 papers (yes, I counted); I see the juxtaposition of their descriptors of private school with the words used by Kozol in Savage Inequalities; I see their struggle to find their entry point into a system with which they have no experience. With which they feel no connection.

They feel no connection.

Not to the students whose lives are so different than their own. Not to the teachers whose daily struggle to find textbooks has never been experienced by their teacher-relatives in private schools. Not to me who (in the words of one student) “had experiences in her primary and secondary education that led her to first become passionate about the subject and then become a scholar of it.”

They feel guilt. And shame. And social obligation (three papers were about this). They acknowledge that in their privileged positions they have the luxury of feigned ignorance. In fact, one student wrote:

“Discovering so many hidden truths in this class has been like parting the clouds, and finally allowing the shadow of privilege to be cast by direct sunlight. When I choose to stay in the shade of ignorance and obliviousness, my privilege is not apparent and cannot bring me the anguish caused by unjust advantages I don’t feel that I deserve; in the shade, I benefit from Johnson’s ‘luxury of obliviousness’ (2006, p.22). When the sun of reality shines upon me, I remember that my privilege is always present, even when I do not see it or feel its effects.”

They know that what they’ve been doing is wrong, yet they have no solutions for how to do anything differently. One of my favorite passages from a student was:

“In third world countries there is a concept called ‘poorism’. This is where tour companies take tourists into slums and walk them through the slum, let them take pictures of the hungry disheveled kids, and maybe they even take the local form of transportation. These companies give tourists a glimpse of poverty so that they can return home and exclaim to all their friends that they know poverty, how it changed who they are, and then they can share that picture of a cute African child. However, two months later, they are back to where they started…I don’t want this class to be poorism in America for me.”

I don’t know how to make this class not be poorism for them. I am unsure of how to create an emotional connection between students and the text. But quotes like these leave me certain that I’ve created a cognitive connection and perhaps, for now, that’s all I can ask of 19 year olds. And of myself.


 *Note: Permission was asked of all students throughout the course to use quotes from their papers in this blog and in any future research.

Education as Oppression

malcolm-x-oppressionI am teaching Urban Education right now. It is a foundation (200-level) course for the major. The course is divided into three sections: living in urban contexts, recurring themes in urban schools, teaching in urban schools. I have 24 students, most of whom are white, but some of whom are children of immigrants from Cuba, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Some were born in other countries but “raised white” (their phrasing). I have one African-American student and one Asian student. At least 6 of them are fluent in Spanish though I suspect around 3 more are as well. I have 8 males in this class—a lot for an education course.

Last Friday as we continued our analysis of recurring themes in urban schools, I opted to postpone our planned discussion of school closings in favor of an activity about equal funding in schools. I made this decision because the students have been entrenched in catch phrases like “urban renewal”, “cycle of poverty” and “school to prison pipeline”. It was raining and I didn’t think they were up for another depressing conversation about what happens to children when their school is closed (i.e. “student displacement”).

Instead, I gave an index card and a paper to each student. On the index card was a title or role. On the sheet of paper was a description of a scenario. In short, students were to assume roles of parent, teacher, principal, coach, student, local home owner, business owner, mayor, aspiring politician, college admissions counselor, or charter school developer at a Board of Education town hall meeting in Camden, NJ. The issue at hand: should nearby Cherry Hill cut their per pupil expenditure from $8,000 to $6,600, using the remaining money to raise Camden’s per pupil expenditure from $5,200 to $6,600. While in real life cities don’t give away their money, for the sake of the activity, students were asked to voice their opinion on if and why this should or should not happen. At stake for Cherry Hill: 15% fewer teachers, slightly larger class sizes, elimination of 2 foreign language programs and one sports team. To be gained by Camden: smaller class sizes, 10% more teachers, and a music program.

What I saw play out over the next 1.5 hours was wonderful from a pedagogical perspective. My students were engaged (no more sleepy expressions), impassioned (two students were standing and yelling at each other across the room about the merits and detriments of charter schools), creative (they came up with 3 alternatives and 6 amendments to the plan), and serious (almost every student wrote out a speech before it was their turn to speak). At first they were being silly, but after 10 minutes they were citing course readings and providing statistical evidence to support their position.

But underlying their comments was something they can’t escape (not without conscious effort): their privilege. Though they were trying to argue within the framework of their assigned character, their thinking was still comfortably housed in their experiences of private school, world travel, AP/IB coursework, and most of all, unintended selfishness.

The issue of equal school funding is over 50 years old yet we are no closer to a resolution. Our attention continues to be misplaced, our arguments misguided, our suggestions short-sighted. Conversations about school funding are about alleviating sufferings instead of mitigating advantages.

Media about education describes run-down, overcrowded schools with unqualified teachers and dejected administrators. Images of classrooms without enough desks, torn textbooks, blackboards with no chalk, windows covered with cardboard, and students huddled inside winter jackets struggling to stay awake pervade documentaries of urban schooling. The blame is hoisted upon apathetic parents, fraudulent politicians, and criminalized kids. They are why their schools fail. They are the ones dropping out of school, selling drugs, killing one another. They are the ones not studying, tearing up textbooks, and sleeping in class. They are the ones who don’t provide adequate housing or food for their children. They are the ones living off the system refusing to get a job and earn an honest day’s wages. Because of these actions—their­ actions—they are responsible for fixing their schools, motivating their children and getting into college. They are responsible for closing the achievement gap. They are responsible for education reform.

…Yet, how did they end up in this position? Who forced them into segregated housing because they were not allowed to live near you? Who withheld schooling so they were unqualified for jobs beyond hard labor? Who introduced crack into those segregated neighborhoods and then closed the doors so those wanting to escape couldn’t? Who withheld civic rights so they had no say in choosing those who would pass laws geared toward maintaining such oppression? Who enacts laws arbitrarily so that when they jay walk, fight in school, or engage in minor theft they are given harsher and longer prison sentences?

What of the benefits you receive in this system of inequities? As long as they are in their schools, in their neighborhoods, with their teachers, they are not affecting you. Out of sight, out of mind. Because see, if they manage to implement true reform, your schools, your neighborhoods, your position will be disrupted. If their classes get smaller, yours may get bigger. If their buildings are renovated, yours may not be. If they get more desks, textbooks and chalk, you may have to learn to work with less. Fixing broken windows and heating systems means you may have to wait another year for that new air conditioning unit. Placing qualified teachers in their schools means they won’t be in your school.

After all, this is about you, right?

Upper-middle and upper class parents occupy a clever position in this debate where they can be politically and morally supportive while being economically and geographically selfish. They can attend town halls and vote in favor of sweeping school reform for them…as long as we don’t have to change. These parents have a vested interested in maintain the system because in order for them to remain on top, there must be a bottom.

Just think. What images would grace the covers of those suburban school brochures if their solariums, music halls, computer classrooms, and lacrosse fields could also be found down the street and across the tracks? What data would be touted by school administrators and politicians if all the schools had 90% of their students at or above proficiency? If every high school was graduating 95% of its students and sending 85% to 4-year colleges/universities? What advantage would your students have if AP, IB, and Gifted programs were offered at every school? Why would Mr. Campbell be considered a “highly qualified” teacher if all teachers had Master degrees?

These things you hold dear as emblems of your superiority are argued to ‘not be enough’ to fix ‘those schools’. Really? Would all schools not benefit from small classes, qualified teachers, a myriad of course offerings and extra-curricular activities? Of course they would. Which is why that menu is not on the table.

What you offer is a la carte. Education reformers may choose one option, but not them all.

  • You may have better teachers; here are some TFA corps members OR you may have smaller classes, but no increase in budget to hire new teachers or raise salaries.
  • You may have a new curriculum; take Common Core Standards OR you may have support staff to help students functioning below grade level.
  • You may have a music and art program OR you may have instruments and art supplies.

These tidbits—these scraps—though placed on a silver platter are still leftovers you are willing to share. Instead of making suggestions that require true sacrifice and systemic change, you employ a sleight of hand and while everyone is arguing over if smaller classes would improve test scores, you are hiring 12 new school counselors for a ratio of 1:8.

When questioned about changing school funding mechanisms from property taxes to a shared pot of money (is she suggesting socialism?!?!), you guard your purse strings with platitudes of ‘money won’t fix everything’ and ‘look at how they mismanage the money they do have!’ or my personal favorite, ‘it’s not my fault they don’t have books or good teachers. Why should I have to pay for a school my child doesn’t attend?’

Class was about to end so I had my students vote on the major motions and the amendments. In the end, they voted (15-9) to pass the motion of lower funding in Cherry Hill and higher funding in Camden. However, they also passed an amendment wherein the programs cut from Cherry Hill and the allocation of funds at Camden were to be decided upon later.

I asked them: what did you all accomplish today?

They replied: nothing. Camden still has no money or resources and Cherry Hill is still better. We just postponed the discussion for a later time.

Then a student asked: so what happened in real life?

I responded: they built Charter schools.

Another student: so basically, in the end, no one gave up anything and Camden didn’t get anything?

Me: exactly.