Educators are Political Operatives

As educators, we must always be aware that we are operating in a highly contested political arena- one the defines winners and losers.

Gary Howard’s words are so true:

“The forces of social dominance…are, by definition, directed toward protecting and perpetuating the good of the few…

For this reason and in this context, public school educators are, by the nature of our work, political operatives…

In our role as educators we are either acting in complicity with the forces of dominance that underlie the achievement gap, or we are consciously and actively seeking to subvert these dynamics and inequities in the service of our students.  When it comes to issues of social justice and educational equity, it is difficult or impossible to find a middle ground.  We are either being used by the forces of dominance, or we are actively resisting them, both in our personhood and in our professional practice.  Whether we are in complicity or in resistance, we have tremendous political influence.

Part of the work of transformationist educators of all racial and cultural groups is to make known that which the forces of dominance would prefer us to leave unnamed and unacknowledged, namely , that (1) the political climate in which public education is currently embedded is not working for the children who have already been pushed to the margins by the equities inherent in systems of social dominance, that (2) those who benefit from these systems have no real intention to change the dynamics that have historically favored them, and that (3) much of the rhetoric underlying the lofty claims of ‘no child left behind’ is merely window dressing and dramatic illusion on the stage of perpetual dominance.”

We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know  (pgs. 135-136)

The Inner Work of Transforming Whiteness

My biggest concern with talk about the achievement gap is that it is used as one more code for blaming people of color.

Gary Howard, in We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, suggests a different approach:

“I am convinced there is a prior and equally compelling need for White people, particularly White educators in the United States and other nations of the West, to look within themselves and realign our deepest assumptions and perceptions regarding the racial marker that we carry, namely Whiteness.  We need to understand the dynamic of past and present dominance, face how we have been shaped by myths of superiority, and begin to sort out or thoughts, emotions, and behaviors relative to race and other dimensions of human diversity.

It is essential in this inner work of multicultural growth that we listen carefully to the perceptions others have of us, particularly students, parents and colleagues from other racial and cultural groups.  They can help us see ourselves in a clearer and truer light.  We cannot fully and fruitfully engage in meaningful dialogue across the differences of race and culture without doing the work of personal transformation.  If we as White educators are not deeply moved and transformed, there is little hope that anything else will significantly shift…Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there will be no meaningful movement towards social justice and real educational reform until there has been a significant transformation in the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of White Americans.  As Malcolm X reminded us years ago, ‘We can’t teach what we don’t know, and we can’t lead where we won’t go.’” (pg. 6)

Measuring Privilege

Diane Ravitch was recently interviewed in Salon on her thoughts on the current state of education reform.  It’s a great interview with an appropriately prophetic title,  Saying Goodbye to Public Educationso be sure to read it.

Ravitch, very knowledgeable about testing and its effects, highlights here the way that standardized test do not measure the effectiveness of public education, as they are purported to do, but simply measure privilege, and thus reinforce it.

“We’re doing to standardized testing what was done in ‘Brave New World.’ And in ‘Brave New World,’ the meritocracy was determined at conception. We use standardized tests as our means of sorting out kids, and saying ‘you’re at the top, and you’re at the bottom.’ The problem with that is that suggests an end to social mobility. Because the one thing we know about standardized testing is that no matter what standardized test it is, those who have are at the top and those who have not are at the bottom…

There are a few kids who rise to the top despite all obstacles. And kids from really wealthy circumstances who fall to the bottom. But on the whole and consistently, the standardized test is a reflection of socioeconomic status. So in effect the standardized test then becomes a giving to those who have, and… certifying the have-nots as have-nots.” (emphasis added)

Again, any version of education reform that is dependent on standardized testing  is simply a sham that reinforces the status quo.

The Racist Narrative of ‘Failing Schools’

We hear it all of the time- we need to find ways to support ‘failing schools.’  And yet, there is little questioning of the assumptions underlying this phrase. Still, because of the uncritical acceptance of the existence of failing schools, lots of people are hard at work determining ways to support (i.e, in today’s Orwellian twist of language, ‘destroy’) them.

Let’s look at how this plays out in my home state of Michigan.

In  2011, it was determined by Republican Governor Rick Snyder that the lowest performing 5% of schools were to be taken out of the control of their local districts and put into a new, state-wide district called the Educational Achievement Authority.

How was “lowest performing” determined?  By state-wide MEAP test score results.

What do we know about test scores?  That the best predictor of success is socio-economic status.

It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring?  By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves.  ‘Failing schools’ do not exist.  What do exist are communities that we have failed.

So it is no surprise that the schools taken from local control were schools of high poverty with high concentrations of people of color.  The EAA “enrolled” (to more accurately reveal the Orwellian twist, ‘absconded with’) 15 schools from the 95 % black Detroit Public School System.

And why is this racist?

Let me start by saying what I do not mean.  I am not suggesting that Snyder or others are consciously making decisions based on race.  I am not calling Snyder a racist. I don’t pretend to know his intentions.

However, I do know how the behavior of those who use the language of ‘failing schools’ functions. I am saying that the combination of unconscious bias and the workings of a system that benefits some at the expense of others works together in the language of  ‘failing schools’  to function as institutionalized racism.

Let me connect some dots.

John a. powell, in his book  Racing to Justice, writes of what he calls ‘racialized space’:

“In the current era of defacto segregation and discrimination, white domination survives without explicit racial discrimination.  Blacks’ inferior social, economic, and political status is instead justified by a supposed ‘culture of poverty,’ and contained with what John Calmore calls ‘racialized space.’  Under this rubric, non-white individuals congregate at the bottom of the social ladder not because of group-based discrimination or structural racism, but because each individual has internalized cultural tenets that conflict with the societal norms of hard work and lawfulness- values that enable other individuals to succeed.  As Calmore points out, this explanation appeals to conservatives because it adopts and fosters their emphasis on individual autonomy.  This focus also absolves those who have ‘succeed’ in society of responsibility for those who have ‘failed’ by severing any causal connection between successful whites and unsuccessful blacks- or indeed anyone less successful.” (pg. 58)

The narrative of  ‘failing schools’ obscures any connection between individual failing (and the schools that are made up of individual ‘failures’) and the broader societal connections of segregation underlied by a culture of white privilege.  It works under the assumption that the fault lies with the individuals living in a culture of poverty- their choices create their poverty, rather than a racialized history that implicates all of those who continue to uphold white privilege.  And it answers such supposed failure by doubling down on addressing this ‘culture of poverty’ with language of so-called support, which in fact functions to dispossess those of color of their own agency and to further profit those of privilege.  (This is not a place to address the effectiveness of the EAA, but suffice to say that, except for those profiting off of the privatization that the EAA has allowed for, it is a colossal failure.  See the excellent work of Eclectablog and Tom Pedroni for more on this.)

What the narrative of failing schools does most is allows us to continue to avoid meaningfully addressing race and poverty.  It obscures the fact that a history of policies supporting white privilege has created pockets of race and poverty that are untenable in a moral society, and it does so by blaming the victims of such policy.

Powell continues, “Today, of course, instead of referring to minorities as inherently inferior, we define the undeserving poor (or ‘the underclass’) by characteristics that are race-neutral in theory, but heavily raciliazed in practice and effect. John Calmore notes that the traits that separate the deserving from the undeserving are heavily racialized in popular discourse:  criminal proportionality, welfare dependency, employment status, and so on.” (pg. 59

‘Black and poor’ becomes a code for ‘undeserving.’  And if you are undeserving, you clearly don’t know what’s best.  So, because they are ‘undeserving,’ it’s easy to subject students in the EAA  to what Snyder has called a “worthy experiment” (quoted in the headline of a Detroit News article that has since been changed).  It’s easy for undeserving students in this experiment to be directed by questionable on-line practices overseen by Teach for America teachers with little training and less than two years of experience.  I doubt Snyder would allow this for his own privately schooled own children. (Again, see Eclectablog‘s telling work on these EAA experimentations.)

What is this really about?

Yes, it’s about a way to continue with the privatization of the public.  It’s about undermining unions and teachers’ right to a democratic work place.  It’s about the ignorant arrogance of wealth and privilege.

But I think Tom Pedroni exposes the root of what it is about, and what allows for all of the above, in his article, The White Man’s Burden, Colonialism and the EAA , when he suggests that it’s one more symptom of the war on blackness.

“The EAA is specifically designed to move education for youth of color out of the hands of communities of color.  It is a rollback of the gains of the civil rights movement, and parallels the imposition of boarding schools on the indigenous in this continent.  Its underlying assumptions, purpose, and mode of operation is essentially the same. Like the boarding schools, it uses looted land and treasure to accomplish its ends…

They honestly believe that if they can just relieve Blacks of the control of their communities, it will all get better, because they just love Detroit’s children so much more than Detroit’s families do.  With all of these reforms, whether it’s governance of the city or governance of the schools, the underlying belief is that schools and communities of families of color can succeed if only adults of color don’t control them.  You can look at what they are bringing and see that at each level.  And we need to pay attention to this. Most of us already are.  Their belief is that the core of the problem is African American control of African American childrearing.  That there is something in African American culture that is bringing ruin everywhere. That’s what they believe, whether they are completely honest about it to themselves, or conscious of it themselves or not.  We can tell by their actions—what they do reveals much about their core beliefs.  They believe that the essential problem in our cities is Black culture, and that they can save Black youth by separating them as much as possible from Black governance, Black educators, and Black families.  Black governance, by not allowing those that the people of Detroit elect to govern the city and schools to actually govern.  Democracy is okay for White people, they believe, but Black people just can’t handle that. ..

Because behind all this, they see Black culture as pathological.  They see that as what needs to be broken… Black culture… the very thing that helped African Americans to survive 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, everything. The thing that is celebrated as the impetus of democratizing movements all over the world—people in China invoking MLK when they fight for their freedom– that’s the problem– Black culture and how you separate Black students from Black culture.  How do you move the control of Black children as much as possible out of the control of Black adults?  Well, you disband the school board, and you put the Governor or the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in charge.  And you take the teaching force of 15 Detroit Public Schools, fire all the teachers, and replace veteran African American teachers, male and female, with mostly female young White women.” (emphasis added)

We need to call it what it is- the narrative of ‘failing schools’ is racist.

Task Accomplishment vs. Relationship Building: (Telling vs. Humble Inquiry)

Thoughts to consider for all teachers, leaders, and would be education reformers- from leadership guru Edgar Schein in his book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

The Main Problem- A Culture That Values Task Accomplishment More than Relationship Building

…Most important of all, we value task accomplishment over relationship building and either we are not aware of this cultural bias or, worse, don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with it.”  pg. 55

…The U.S. culture is strongly built on the tacit assumptions of pragmatism, individualism, and status through achievement.  These assumptions introduce a strong bias for getting the job done, which combined with individualism, leads to a devaluing of relationship building, teamwork, and collaboration except as means to the end of task accomplishment.  Given those cultural biases, doing and telling are inevitably valued more than asking and relationship building.  However; as tasks become more complex and interdependent, collaboration, teamwork, and relationship building will become more necessary.  That, in turn, will require leaders to become more skilled in Humble Inquiry.” (emphasis added) pg. 66

How does that individualistic bias of task accomplishment play out inside classrooms, school measurement systems, and the corporate education reform movement- a movement that silences and ignores the voices of teachers, those it most depends on for accomplishing its task?


Mitch Albom and the N-Word

This morning’s Detroit Free Press has an interesting article from Mitch Albom, “Examining the NFL’s Debate for Penalties for N-Word.” In the article, Mitch writes of his discomfort with the NFL’s new rule fining the on-field use of the N-word, while decrying any use of the N-word.

There’s lot of places to go with this, but let me address two consecutive sentences in Mitch’s article:

“Look. I don’t shake the rafters of this idea and find sociological ghosts of white supremacy. I see a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry worried about its image.”

What are the unspoken assumptions within those two sentences?

1.  White supremacy is a thing of the our past- a ghost.

2.  The present, multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry has no vestiges of white supremacy, particularly as a means of protecting its image within a culture of whiteness.

3.  There are no connections between assumptions 1 and 2 above.

Let me start with Mitch’s assumption that “white supremacy” is a thing of the past.  I do recognize that this can be loaded language, and that it is too often understood as being synonymous with “white racist.”  However, we live in a culture that uses a dominant “white racial frame,” a frame that, as Joe Feagin writes, “…has been a ‘master frame,’ a dominant framing that provides a generic meaning system for the racialized society that became the United States.”  This is the frame that most whites, and many people of color, use to view our culture and thus is the standpoint from which judgments are made.  It’s clearly a frame of white privilege, and much of this white privilege is unconscious.  Thus the frame of “whiteness” becomes the norm for what is judged as right or wrong, and what is worthy of merit.  We live in a society where a huge number of people of color have their voting rights disenfranchised through a politics of imposed privilege , or the New Jim Crow .  We live in a society that justifies the murder of black men and children through the twisted logic of stand your ground.  I could go on and on, but this is enough to call into question the idea that white supremacy is something we have overcome. As such, I am not saying that we have a culture dominated by individual white racism, but we undeniably have a culture that systematically works to privilege whiteness.

What is “normal”?  Whiteness. What does success mean?  Whiteness. Who decides?  People who have power based on whiteness.  These are the assumptions that are hidden by the privilege Mitch Albom represents.

What we have is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry trying to protect its image, an image necessarily grounded in whiteness.  (Duly note the recent uproar over Richard Sherman.)

The problem with Mitch is that his article reaffirms the standards of white supremacy.  In writing of white supremacy and college admissions, David Leonard writes, “Whiteness is what is meritorious and everything else is secondary.  The rules and the standards must reflect and reaffirm the spots reserved for white students. ”  The same concerns over “merit” as determined by whiteness occurs in all categories of our culture, including language and sports.  Very simply, Albom is making a judgement on the merit of language from the perspective of his white privilege while obscuring the existence of white privilege.

The fundamental question is not about the merit and ownership of the N-word, but just who gets to determine the merit of anything?  And who has voice in such determination?

Who decides?

I vote against Mitch.

On Turning Public Spaces Into Forces of Consumption

The common spaces traditionally provided for the public are slowly being eroded in the name of economic efficiency, victim to the ideology of pervasive market fundamentalism that serves as the scourge of our age.  On the front edge of post industrialism, those in Detroit are experiencing this first hand.  A non-elected, state appointed Emergency Manager is slowly selling off city services, cutting what were constitutionally guaranteed pensions, and ignoring an emasculated, but fairly elected city council. Shea Howell calls this a “state of siege.”  With Detroit now under emergency management, half the blacks in the state of Michigan are now without a say in their local government.

All of this parallels a privatization of public education that is occurring simultaneously.  Major urban cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and others have had their public spaces of education privatized into for profit charter schools.  School closings have run rampant, decimating disproportionately communities of color, a process that Kristen Buras calls “accumulation by dispossession,” in which people of privilege dispossess what was once commonly held, as a means of accumulating for their own benefit.

So what?  What does this loss of the common good as expressed through “the public” matter?  Why not let the market allow for so-called better options?  What are we losing?

Henry Giroux correctly connects the loss of the “radical imagination” to the conversion of public spaces, including schools, into “forces of consumption.”  He suggests that a privatized form of education is an education of acquisition.  That is, learning is reduced to the process of acquiring content knowledge, what Paulo Freire names the “banking concept.”  Such a way of imagining learning fails to consider the place of imagination, and of what Ron Ritchhart and others call “thinking dispositions,”  and it fails to acknowledge connections between individuals and their broader community.  Under this conscripted view of learning, the purpose of an education is to individually attain greater status, which will thus allow for greater consumption.

By way of example, Neil Gaiman connects the privatization of the public, and the bias of utilitarian information over fiction, in the same way in  Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.  Libraries have historically been valued in a democracy as a public space that protected the common good of literacy.  As literacy is a commonly held foundation of democracy, libraries have been protected institutions.  Now they are disappearing.  Gaiman connects the need to protect libraries to the need to protect the reading of fiction, and overtly links the growing privatization of prisons to the need for literacy.  I also argue that he alludes to the “slack” provided through the  imagination vs. a world of cold, hard, utilitarian “grit” and economic efficiency .  (For more on “slack vs. grit,” please see the important writings of Paul Thomas and Ira Socol.)

Gaimon writes:

“I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.”

The closing of libraries closes access to literature to those who don’t have the privilege of creating their own libraries.  The closing of libraries, the public commons of literacy, reduces the space allowed for anyone to read- and reading becomes a privatized act of pleasure only available to those with the privilege of access to their own private store of books.  But reading, and particularly reading fiction, is more than an act of pleasure.  It is an act that develops literacy, and that, as Gaiman writes, allows us to learn that, “…the world doesn’t have to be like this.  Things can be different.”  This knowledge that things can be different is an affront to the status quo.  We begin to see why who has access to this knowledge matters.

In this world of increasing privatization, Giroux’s radical imagination becomes an act of privilege rather than a right of democracy.  Are fewer libraries more efficient?  When reducing efficiency to a short term economic value- yes.  Are we better off with fewer libraries?  I think Gaiman provides a convincing argument that we are all far poorer without them.

This is one example of the loss incurred through privatization.  And it also provides an example of the kinds of questions we need to be asking in addition to the all too simple one of,  is it more efficient?  (And efficiency is always code for market fundamentalism.)

All of this is a way for me to the lay ground for an extended excerpt from Henry Giroux’s article, Reclaiming the Radical Imagination.  Here he connects the privatization movement to our culture of consumption as a one-dimensional, purely economic way of imagining what it means to be human together.

When civic literacy declines and the attacks on civic values intensify, the commanding institutions of society are divorced from matters of ethics, social responsibility and civic engagement. One consequence is the emergence of a kind of anti-politics in which the discourses of privatization, possessive individualism and crass materialism inundate every aspect of social life, making it easy for people to lose their faith in the critical function of civic education and the culture of an open and substantive democracy. The very essence of politics has been emptied of any substantive meaning and is now largely employed as a form of anti-politics legitimating a range of anti-democratic policies and practices ranging from attacks on women’s reproduction rights and the voting rights act to a war on unions, public servants, public school teachers, young people immigrants and poor minorities. As public spaces are transformed into spaces of consumption, the formative cultures that provide the preconditions for critical thought and agency crucial to any viable notion of democracy are eviscerated. The conditions for encouraging the radical imagination has been transformed into the spectacle of illiteracy, repression, state violence, massive surveillance, the end of privacy, and the ruthless consolidation of power by the ultrarich and powerful financial interest. The imagination is under intense assault and increasingly is relegated to the dead zone of casino capitalism, where social and civil death has become the norm.   Under such circumstances, civil society along with critical thought cannot be sustained and become short-lived, fickle and ephemeral. At the same time, it becomes more difficult for individuals to comprehend what they have in common with others and what it means to be held together by shared responsibilities rather than shared fears and competitive struggles…” (Emphasis added.)

The movement towards privatization, and the correlating loss of public spaces, means that we lose access to both imagining how we are to live together, and to the means of developing a life together.  It fundamentally shifts the purpose education away from the civic foundation of democracy, towards a privatized notion of individual acquisition and consumption.  It privileges the value of economic efficiency, a value that economically (but not in any other way) benefits those most well placed to take advantage of their wealth, over the value of a democratic way of imagining life together.

Very scary.

Giroux again,

As I have often argued, the educational force of the wider culture, and the sites where it is delivered to the public, demand a radical rethinking of modes of civic education, if not politics itself. Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres in which civic values, public scholarship and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of the promise of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good.”