The Road to Hell is Paved by You

Your intentions don’t matter to me. No, really…they don’t. I don’t care if you ‘meant’ to be complimentary. That is not a compliment. I don’t care if you think what you are saying or doing is perfectly acceptable. It’s not. It’s offensive and racist. To hell with your intentions. Because frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Here are a few things that happened to me in the last 3 weeks.

1) A friend and colleague of mine was nominated for an award by a local arts council (she is a professor of theater and dance). Three of us went to the event to support her nomination and to enjoy some time away from work. We meet at her house and get dolled up for the event. We arrive at the event and are clearly the best dressed people there (this isn’t saying much. The bar for fashion in this city is lower than dirt). Oh, I should mention that my friend group is comprised like this: 2 black women, 1 brown woman, and 1 white woman who is often mistaken as Latina or Asian. There were three other people of color in the room of about 200 people. Three times during the short evening (we left halfway through the program) people asked all or some combination of us if we were ‘a singing group’.

Riiiiiight, because a group of women of color dressed up are clearly here to entertain you. Please hold while I shuck n jive right quick.

2) At the same event, we sat down in the middle of a table set for 10. There were already 2 older white women at the end of the table but the remaining 8 seats were open. 10 minutes after we sat down, a party of 3 (two white women, one white man) claimed the remaining seats at the table. We were still in the cocktail hour so the line for food was long. We chose not to get in line so we were sitting and enjoying lively conversation. I suddenly feel someone standing behind me to the left. I look up and it’s one of the ladies in the trio. She is just hovering and clearly attracts our attention. When we are all looking at her, she asks (in a meek, timid voice): “you aren’t going to steal my purse are you?” Then she paused to hear our response.

Hmmm…lady, I don’t want your Ross purse.

3) A colleague knocks on my office door, enters without waiting for a response and sees I am meeting with a student. She slowly backs out but I ask her if she needs anything immediately. She comes into the office and hands me something small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. She tells me to open it. It is bronzer in the shade of ‘sun kissed’. She tells me it’s ‘beautiful’ (3 times) and exclaims about how much she knew I’d like it. Yes, please give me lots of bronzer so that I may continue to paint myself in black face every day.

Newsflash: my skin is brown. I don’t need bronzer.

4) A Masters student sees me for the first time in about a month. My hair is different now: I’m wearing it in its natural state in all its afro glory. This is what she says: oh wow! Your hair is awesome like that. It was nice before, but that…that is POWER hair. It makes a statement. You should wear it like that all the time. How’d you get it like that?’

Oh, I just woke up and started the process of creating miniscule curls packed densely together. And I did it because I wanted to make a statement.

5) It is 8am and I am meeting colleagues at a local bagel shop to have a meeting. While I wait for my colleagues to get their food and join me at the table, an older white woman approaches me and says: “You are gorgeous. I love that color purple you’re wearing. It really pops against your skin. It would make me look drab but if I had skin like yours, I’d wear purple every day!!!”

If you had skin like mine, you would know that brown skin has far more severe influences on life than fashion decisions.

After numbers 3 and 4 happened today, I was done. I debriefed with a colleague who ‘gets’ these issues. She was rightfully annoyed and angry and she posed the following question: whose responsibility is it to educate these people?

I don’t know. But today, they don’t pay me enough to explain my skin, my hair, nor my presence in the context of white life. And I don’t *intend* to explain this tomorrow.


My Degrees Will Not Save Me

My degrees will not save me.

Episode 1

I came to this realization when I was 21 and nearing the end of my first year of my PhD program. It was Spring Break (that is the last time those two words ever meant anything to me) and I’d journeyed to NYC to visit my two best friends: one of whom was completing her first year of law school and the other of whom was gearing up to begin her first year of medical school. Because it was early March in NYC it was still a bit chilly and two of us were wearing Dartmouth sweatshirts while the third opted for Cornell (her law school). We’d decided to see some awful Halle Berry movie at a place near Columbus Circle. When the monstrosity movie ended, we left the theater and entered the NYC sidewalk foray. I was walking on the edge of the sidewalk near the street chatting with my friends about our precious wasted dollars when I was suddenly pushed from behind into the street of oncoming traffic. Fortunately a car slammed the brakes and I was able to jump back onto the sidewalk soon enough to see a middle aged white woman push past my friends saying ‘I’m so sick of all of you!’  To make a long story short, I ran after her and caught her at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change. I politely asked her why she pushed me in the street. She responded ‘because I’m sick of you girls taking up space and being so loud!’ When I replied that we were not being loud, she said ‘well no, YOU weren’t but black girls are always so loud. The other day I had to walk through two black girls fighting to get to my car!!!’  I was honestly baffled because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that had to do with me. She then went on to tell me a story of how she got in an elevator with a black man and he didn’t speak when she said ‘hi’. She also noted that he was wearing headphones and perhaps hadn’t heard her…I cut her off after story number 3 of how she was pseudo-offended by black people and told her that had nothing to do with me. It was clear this woman was in no way going to apologize for her actions so I just suggested to my friends we leave. Instead, my soon-to-be attorney friend had a twenty minute heart to heart with her. The woman started sobbing saying how she’d been very stressed lately and just couldn’t take more of ‘those people’ getting in her way. My friend asked her what we’d done to be in her way and she replied ‘you just are.’

Episode 2 (this is actually episode 3. I wrote about episode 2 in Narratives of Success in the Black Community)

Fast forward to last Fall. I was driving the 1.2 miles to work and was about a block away driving behind a pick-up truck on a one lane street. After you go through the light, it opens into two lanes and the left lane pretty much becomes a turning lane (read: sit behind 8 cars waiting to turn at a light with no arrow). So as soon as we went through the green light, I put on my signal and moved into the new right lane, as did the car behind me. During that process, the pick-up truck decides he too is going to get in the right lane, but because he is driving slower than me, he cuts me off. In order not to hit him, I have to swerve and drive into someone’s front yard. The car behind me swerves into their driveway. No one is hurt. We all proceed forward. I am smart enough to not drive behind that truck anymore so as soon as possible, I move into the left lane. Then the one thing I was hoping didn’t happen, happened. We end up side by side at a red light. My heart was beating fast. I started to sweat. And I kept repeating this in my head: don’t look over. Don’t give him eye contact. Despite me acting like he wasn’t there, I could see out of the corner of my eye he’d rolled his window down and was leaned out yelling, ‘You Black Bitch!’. All I could do was pray the light changed soon. It didn’t. I was confident this man had a gun as I live in Colorado—an open carry state, and his pro-second amendment stickers on his car confirmed my suspicion. I was confident this man was so enraged, he was going to reach for his gun at any moment and shoot me. I contemplated driving through the red light because a car accident is certainly safer than being shot from 8 feet away, right? Then I saw the white man who’d been driving behind me get out of his car and approach the screaming driver. I wanted to turn and tell him ‘sir, please get back in your car. That isn’t safe.’  But then I thought, ‘he’s white. Of course he is safe.’

Episode 3

This past May I was headed to commencement. I needed to be there early because I was sitting on stage to introduce an honorary degree recipient. I left my house at 7:05am. At 7:06am, there were flashing lights behind me. I live at the top of a hill so I can pick up speed coming down the hill. The speed limit is 30, but I am certain I was driving well above 30. I was speeding and deserved a speeding ticket. The white state trooper pulled out of the gas station where he’d been sitting, but by then I was about to merge onto the highway. I saw him coming and knew he was coming for me but I merged onto the highway anyway. Why? Because I didn’t want to turn right onto the abandoned access road parallel to the highway. My first thought was ‘I need to be somewhere with a lot of witnesses.’ So I got on the highway and when he was directly behind me, I pulled over. Before he got out of his car I was sure to get my registration and insurance out of the glove compartment, and my license out of my purse. I knew better than to have my hands anywhere but on the wheel when he approached my car. He approached, I lowered the window half way and he went through his spiel…with his hand resting on his gun (yes, that is standard practice for police when they approach a car). I was terrified. Not of a $117 speeding ticket, but of the reality that at any moment, this man could pull his weapon and shoot me because I sneezed, or scratched my head, or in some way made him feel ‘threatened’. When he walked back to his car, I realized I’d been holding my breath and had tears in my eyes. By the time he’d given me my ticket I was so anxious, my hands were shaking too badly to drive. I sat on the side of the highway for 3 minutes willing my body to relax enough for me to arrive in time to don my academic regalia and hob nob with the Board of Trustees and College President before the ceremony.


These are just three incidents in my life where it’s been made abundantly clear that no matter how ‘articulately’ I speak, how many degrees from top institutions I have, or how many tenure-track professorship positions I am offered, I am and always will be perceived as a volatile, Black woman whose life and worth are of little to no value.

So as the scene in Ferguson, MO continues to escalate and black lives continue to be thrown away because of perceived threats (read: bias and racism), I continue to wear my business clothes, get in my Sante Fe, drive to a campus where students pay $55k a year, and teach in a classroom where I am the only person of color with whom many of my students have interacted in their lives.

In other words, every day, I live in fear.

Which picture would they use?



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!



The Pitfalls and Privilege of Pass/Fail

I’ve never left a faculty meeting more incensed than I did today. For over 2 hours, the faculty body at my College nitpicked over the smallest things such as the presence or absence of 1 additional faculty member on the College writing committee/international programs committee/advancement committee/honor council. The primary reason for these amendments to a 1-year piloted proposal was that faculty should not risk losing their voice. What’s more is that we must ensure that every academic division has equal voice in these committees. God forbid the staff or even worse, the students, have more to say than us. For that reason, we must invoke 2 hours of conversation about 5 faculty slots on 4 College committees.

I stayed through those tedious conversations and did not actually get upset until the final bullet point on the agenda: should students be limited to 6 Pass/Fail courses?

pass fail

Now let’s take first things first. I have NO IDEA why students are allowed to take more than ONE course pass/fail. Who goes to college and doesn’t want to be assessed? But I will get to that in a second. Two primary arguments in support of UNLIMITED pass/fail were: a) what if the student is experiencing mental or physical health issues and can’t meet course requirements? b) it encourages students to explore different academic disciplines without the risk of a low grade affecting their GPA.

EXCUSE ME?????  As a psychologist, I am appalled we think we should encourage students with proven mental or physical illness to remain in college instead of taking a medical leave of absence and focusing on their health. This type of implicit expectation makes students who do choose to prioritize their health feel lesser than students who ‘tough it out’. As a result, we’ve seen the increase of college students with mental health diagnoses—especially anxiety disorders—rapidly increase over the last few years. We’ve consequently seen an increase in suicides and suicide attempts. We are so heavily invested in the culture of achievement that we are telling students to ignore their health needs and to help you do so, we will lower the standards for you just so you can ‘pass’ this course.

And yes. Taking a course pass/fail is indeed lowering the standards for that student. We are in essence saying that if you master 60% of the content (or 65%–whatever the cut off is for a D), that is good enough for you to receive college credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. In what vocation are you allowed to do just 60% of your job duties and still receive a pay check? What teacher begins a course hoping that students get 60% of the content? In what world is 60% proficiency acceptable?

I will tell you what world: the world of the privileged. The world where there is a perpetual and unyielding safety net. The world where there are no consequences associated with any decisions because someone else is there to either mitigate risk or assume it for them. Coming to college is in itself a risky decision. You are moving away from your family and your home and striking out on a new adventure full of social, emotional and academic challenges. Every course for which students sign up is a risk. No one but the professor knows the demands of that course and what it will take to be successful. It is not the faculty’s job to mitigate student risk. It is our job to ensure we provide them with the tools necessary to manage risk. If you enroll in Organic Chemistry because you were awesome in chemistry in high school, then you are knowingly making a decision to enroll in a course in which you may not earn an A. You are not entitled to an A. It is not my job to give you an A. You earn what you earn. And if you earn a D, deal with the consequences of it.

My next concern is with the cognitive concomitants of pass/fail. Any educational or social psychologist familiar with role theory understands the importance of expectations and accountability in the construction of a role. The message we are sending with unlimited pass/fails is that we don’t expect much of you in your role of student and we will in fact, give you the same reward for taking this course as someone who is being evaluated and held to higher standards. We are therefore failing to properly teach the rights, duties, obligations, and expectations of their social role in a college context. Empirical research suggests that being held accountable for one’s role behaviors is correlated with higher effort, higher intrinsic motivation to learn, an incremental view of intelligence, and more collaborative behaviors. To say it more simply, when students are not held accountable, they don’t invest in their learning. And for a school charging 55k a year, we are certainly encouraging a financial investment.

Lastly, the driving force behind my outrage is how this particular policy disadvantages marginalized groups lacking the social capital to effectively use it. Students who take a lot of courses pass/fail are those who don’t understand the long term consequences of a transcript with 4 courses without grades. Students from highly educated families have parents who tell them the pitfalls of not having a GPA or not being able to represent your competency through course grades. Students from families whose parents may not have attended college, who don’t know how higher education functions, or who’ve never had to produce an academic transcript for employment do not automatically know how to effectively use pass/fail options. When students come to me proposing to take a course pass/fail, I am sure to ask the following questions: How can a prospective employer evaluate your job readiness when all you have is a listing of courses with credit allocations beside it? How do they know your differential proficiencies in the discipline when your 200 level courses have the same outcome as your 400 level courses?  How will you be able to relay your achievement when a 90% is being interpreted as a 60%?

What’s more is the social perception of students who take classes pass/fail. I strongly believe that marginalized students enacting this option will be viewed differently than wealthy and/or white and/or legacy students doing the same. If I, as a 20 year old black girl, presented a transcript to prospective PhD programs with a lot of pass/fail courses, I would have been perceived as not having confidence in my abilities, not having a strong skill set, or afraid of failure. My white friends on the other hand would be perceived as academically venturesome, courageous, and smart in their decision to mitigate risk.

I was outraged that this dichotomy was not voiced at the faculty meeting. Where was the representation of marginalized students’ voices? Where were the faculty speaking on behalf of the students who are in my office in tears saying ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take courses pass/fail’? Faculty were instead concerned with ‘punishing’ students for taking a course outside of their comfort zone. They were also concerned with ‘students who are managing anxiety issues and wouldn’t be allowed to count a pass/fail course in their graduation credits’. Or my favorite, ‘the logistics of how much work it will take to track how many pass/fail courses a student has taken.’

At this point it is natural for you to wonder why I did not stand up and say these very things. I was close. So close, I did stand up. So close that a senior colleague sitting behind me asked what I was going to say and then suggested I ‘not say anything because this really only affects about 5% of the student body who actually take 8 or more courses pass/fail.’

Translation: those 5% are not worth this discussion.

That sentiment is what caused me to walk out. Her comment reinforced what I already knew to be true: anything I said would fall on deaf ears. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 3 years of these meetings is that voices are only heard when people consent to listen.


Within the Ivory Towers: Managing Grief in Academia

I don’t really know how to start this post but I certainly feel the need to write it. Yesterday I learned that one of my best friends since the age of 13 passed away. He was one of those people who was just good. Better. And he never got a fair shot in life. He had been ill for quite some time, so while his passing is not a surprise, the sadness is the same.

It’s a similar sadness to what I felt when my grandfather passed away during my first semester of graduate school. I was not able to attend his funeral because there was a snow storm and my flight was canceled. My current state is a lightweight version of the extremely deep pain I felt (and continue to feel) when my brother passed during my fourth year of graduate school.

Friends and colleagues of mine have experienced similar grief, but I’m always particularly aware of grief when it happens within the rigid walls of academia.

To make a long story short, there is no space for grief in academia. With every loss, I felt a simultaneous anxiety around having to step away from my 1st year project, dissertation research, and first day of class. Some might say that I am using my work to distract from my grief and perhaps yes, that is true to an extent. But when I examine my pain more intensively, I know I am not avoiding my grief; I am saving it for after work hours. I also know that this pattern is in part, my need to continue forward because if I pause to cry at my desk, my sadness will overwhelm me.

I cannot afford that.

I cannot afford to appear weak. In graduate school, it was about proving my worth. I did not want my advisor or my committee to think I didn’t have the fortitude to do what needed to be done. One sign of weakness could be my exit point off the PhD highway. It may sound dramatic but it’s not. PhD students fight continuously for respect from faculty and sometimes, one another. I was a 21 year old first year PhD student who was accepted into the top program in the field on her first try straight out of undergrad. I was rare. I was black. And all eyes were on me.

While I did not share my grandfather’s passing with anyone in my program, I could not help but share my brother’s death. That grief could not be hidden so I had no choice but to leave for a bit. And I do mean a bit. I went home for about 5 days and then took a pre-planned vacation to Miami for 4 days. After that, I was back on the grind. I told myself it’s what my brother would’ve wanted (which is true. He wasn’t one for wallowing in things you can’t control), but it was more because I knew I couldn’t lose ground in my program.

The department knew what I was going through yet not a single person besides my advisor offered even a word of condolence. I was told they would send flowers to his funeral. They did not. I was not offered extensions on looming deadlines, nor did I receive an email of sympathy or even a clichéd line of encouragement. I was given nothing.

At 24 years old, struggling to complete a PhD I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, I didn’t have the emotional strength to fight that battle. I accepted their behaviors as par for the course and used it to strengthen my resolve to get the hell out of there ASAP. And I promised myself that if I ever became a professor, I would never treat my students or colleagues that way.

But ‘that way’ is the norm. As a faculty member now, I see colleagues experience grief and for the most part, they too suck it up and come to work as if nothing was amiss. Those rare few who take some time off are whispered about at faculty meetings. Words like ‘dramatic’ and ‘depressed’ and ‘absent’ are complemented by expressions of disdain and scorn. How dare they not be at the meeting? It’s been a month since his son died! It’s been THREE months since her partner died!! They should be back by now!!!

My campus has experienced a lot of loss in the last few months. Students and colleagues leaving Earth far too soon has made everyone emotionally vigilant. And while academia encourages us to create a student experience that engenders the happily educated image of a coed, the same cannot be said for faculty. While we create task forces to deal with ‘campus issues’ and hire third party firms to conduct research on the ‘campus climate’, where are the support groups, counseling sessions, and offers of leave for faculty? I cannot even request these things without appearing to be some depressed weirdo who can’t handle the challenges life throws because that is the culture of academia.

We academics are tough. We are committed. We are expected to approach our personal lives in the same informed and educated fashion we approach our profession. We should be well versed in grief and ensure we move through those stages properly—in our own time.

The divide between who I am as a human and who I am expected to be as a professor is awful. It makes me feel ashamed of the two tears that escape my guard and splash onto my desk. It makes me feel awkward when friends ask me if I’m okay and if they can give me a hug. My mind is saying ‘I shouldn’t need a hug’, but my heart is saying ‘yes, please’.

So to those who’ve offered hugs, sent emails, delivered a clichéd message of support, surreptitiously squeezed my hand, called, and made me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry, thank you. You make it possible for me to get out of bed and go to work and be the scholar academia forces me to be.






Common Core State Standards: Doomed to Fail?


A friend of mine asked me yesterday what my thoughts were about CCSS. Coincidentally, that is the topic of today’s Ed Policy class. Interestingly, I don’t have strong opinions about the standards themselves, but I do have thoughts about the implementation of this piece of policy. A lot of the information I include in this post is primarily from Chapter 7 of The School Reform Landscape by Christopher Tienken and Donald Orlich.

But first, let’s make something clear: CCSS are not curricula. These are standards that should be used to guide the development and execution of curriculum. The choice of curriculum still lies with LEAs (districts or individual schools/classrooms).

Okay, now that that is cleared up, let’s move on.

CCSS are interesting for a lot of reasons. Firstly, the creation of them is suspicious. Depending upon your source, you might hear that a team of teachers were recruited to create the standards. Or you may hear that textbook publishers bid for the opportunity to create the standards. Given the way our education system functions, I am inclined to believe the latter. What is clear is that CCSS were supported by an array of private and public entities including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Army, Business Roundtable and Achieve. I highly doubt any of these organizations sought experienced and effective K-12 teachers for their sage guidance.

Keeping in line with the Obama administration’s rhetoric, the theme of the CCSS is college readiness. More specifically, these standards are guided by 5 criteria:

  • Alignment with college and career expectations
  • Inclusion of rigorous content via higher order thinking skills
  • Built upon current state standards
  • Informed by top performing countries
  • Evidence or research-based

The standards are also purported to use inclusionary language and focus on 21st century skills—whatever those are. Perhaps most disconcerting for me is the fact that the standards don’t come with aligned assessments. Word on the street is that LEAs can create their own assessments while the DoE vets proposals from businesses who want to create an accompanying assessment. I don’t understand how we can get reliable data about the effectiveness of these standards when curricula and evaluation of the curricula are unique to school districts. With over 14,000 school districts in the country, we will have no idea how these standards are faring.

Which brings me to my largest issue with CCSS: validity and reliability. Any person who’s taken one measurement design course would have a stroke when thinking about the variability in implementation and evaluation of the CCSS. Quick review: validity basically answers the question does the measure assess what it is supposed to assess? And reliability answers the questions will I get similar results when I use this measure with similar people in different contexts?

Well, since there is no common measure of the CCSS the answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO. There is no way to ensure that the curriculum developed by LEAs will actually align with the standards. We don’t know if the pedagogical methods used to enact the curriculum are aligned with the standards. And most of all, because most people in public education have no idea what measurement design is, the assessments used to evaluate students’ attainment of the standards will likely be invalid and unreliable.

The authors of the book I reference allege that the standards were not piloted in any form. They assert that ‘opinions’ were the primary gauge of quality during the creation of these standards. If this is true, this is very concerning but not surprising. Opinion-based research ought to be the standard phrase in education, not evidence-based research.

My final concern with CCSS is the timeline. I find it amazing that these were released in 2010 and within a few months, you could purchase textbooks aligned with the CCSS. How on Earth did these people whip up textbooks so quickly? Makes me think they already knew the contents of the CCSS…

And the incentives for states to adopt CCSS were so high, they were basically financially coerced into acceptance. States could not apply for Race to the Top monies without indicating how their school reform efforts aligned with CCSS. The Obama administration further incentivized CCSS by telling states they could more flexibly enact portions of NCLB if they adopted CCSS. Needless to say, at present, 44 states, D.C. and 4 territories have adopted CCSS.

While it’s great we are moving toward uniformity (yes, I believe in more uniformity between and within states), I think we are moving way too fast. Given that the CCSS come with no curricula, no assessments and absolutely no training, classroom teachers have been given the weighty responsibility of figuring it out on their own. Better districts try to conduct workshops, but who is qualified to lead a workshop about a set of standards created behind closed doors by special interest groups? What we have are teachers working frantically during the school year to adapt their current curriculum and pedagogy to meet new standards. This will inevitably result in teachers completely ignoring the standards or doing a haphazard job of addressing them. We continue to lay down federal and state mandates without giving LEAs the support they need to adhere to them.

Like other educational policies in this country, we are putting the cart before the horse. As a pedagogue I understand the value in backward design, but sometimes it’s imperative we understand the how before we decide on the what.