Education as if the World Mattered: Belonging and Interdependence as Education’s Purpose

This post was written with Ethan Lowenstein, Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMI’s). SEMI’s does tremendous work in the development of an educational approach that values, among other things, place and responsible citizenship, grounded in an ethic of Ecojustice. Check them out here.

Chet Bowers asks a question that we should all be considering, especially those of us who serve as educators: “How do we live more interdependent lives based on practices that are less dependent on a monetized world, that are less environmentally destructive?”

So what exactly does such a question have to do with education? Aren’t we supposed to help kids get into college?

Sure. Of course.

But usually the unspoken purpose of getting kids into college is to help them find a nice paying job that allows them to live independently as opposed to interdependently. It allows them to find a nice paying job because of the need to do so in a monetized world. That is, “achievement” is synonymous with “success,” which, in today’s market driven world is synonymous with making a lot of money, of having a “good job,” of acquiring the means to acquire endlessly. And, needless to say, this alienated individualism- the self as separate from relationship and responsibility to community- leads to a consumerism that certainly exacerbates environmental destruction. It seems our current story too often takes us in the opposite direction from that which Bowers’ question is pointing us towards.

We propose a different purpose of education, one that is rooted in practices that reveal our interdependence to each other and to our environment, and that promotes the value of community over the single dimension of the market.

The Problem With Hierarchy

Before we get to the vision, it is important to name the obstacles to such a vision, obstacles that can be deeply hidden. These obstacles are tied to what Bowers calls our “root metaphors,” language metaphors that limit what we see and speak. We argue that at the foundation of these root metaphors is the notion of hierarchy.

Hierarchy is a particular way of imagining human organizations, and as such, represents a particular means of organizing power. Hierarchy embeds power within a structure that coalesces it from “the top,” allowing access to few as a means of creating “efficiency,” and the more centralized, the more “efficient.” It works to privilege power over others, rather than power used with others. We have no issue with power. The issue is, who has power? Where does that power come from? And, importantly, what value does that power function to express?

All systems create a code, a text for communication. The ability to critically read the text of organizations is a crucial skill for all of us.

In their important book, The Abundant Community ,John McKnight and Peter Block help us read the text of hierarchical systems. As they put it, “A system life is a way of living that is not our own but one that is named by another.” They point out that what they call “systems” do the following:

  • Systems are designed to create scale.  Scale in turn requires consistency, control and predictability.
  • Management provides the organizing structure required to produce consistency, control and predictability….management is a way of thinking about life, family, neighborhood, schools- that these can and need to be “managed.”
  • The task of management and systems is to maintain control by taking uncertainty out of the future, which is essential to fulfill the promise of consistency and scale. Standards are an attempt to create predictability.

We believe these are pretty straight forward. And when applied to schools, they lead to an achievement oriented, standards-based approach. The Common Core, for instance, represents a standardized system brought to scale measured by the “accountability” (or an answering to hierarchical power) to test based measures. The task of administrators is to manage the imposition of this system. As Dr. E. Wayne Ross shows us, “Accountability is an economic interaction within hierarchical, bureaucratic systems between those who have power and those who don’t. (It is) a means of dispersing power to lower levels of hierarchical systems. Those who receive power are obligated to ‘render an account’ of accomplishing outcomes desired by those in power. Accountability schemes obfuscate identity of higher authority; serve interest of status quo/unequal power relations.” In other words, “accountability” becomes a means for those at the top to impose their will upon those under them in a hierarchical structure.

What is hidden by such hierarchical systems is the contexts that they are imposed upon. Because these systems are designed to create scale, they are also designed to erase the particularities of place and of people.  Individuals are held “accountable” to the hierarchical system, and thus the unique individuality of these individuals, or of the context of place, are reduced to their roles and functions within this system. The uniqueness of who you are is sacrificed to your role function. The uniqueness of where you live is sacrificed to the the standardization required for this system to work anywhere. McKnight and Block show us that these systems suppress the personal and make human and non-human relationships utilitarian and instrumental. Individuals and communities are sacrificed in the name of scale and standards while standards create the illusion of predictability. Hierarchical systems are essential to competitive norms, of creating winners and therefore losers. They are necessary to create predictability in a world that essentializes predictability as means of “winning,” of “measuring,” of “ranking,” of “fixing,” a world that wishes to dispense with mystery, to rid itself of losing, to rid itself of fallibility. To rid itself of death.

As an example, consider a McDonald’s restaurant. A burger anywhere in the world is created to be exactly the same. A McDonald’s in China is standardized so that you can predict that a Big Mac that you buy there will be exactly the same as a burger that you buy in America.  The person cooking the burger is irrelevant, as is the community that it is cooked in. A burger in a McDonald’s in America is designed to taste exactly as a burger in China.

Place doesn’t matter.

And that’s a problem.

Hierarchy allows for the abstraction from place. Hierarchy is replicable anywhere, and thus makes the context of a particular place irrelevant.

On the other hand, recognizing interdependence grounds us in a specific place. Each place has a set of relationships and living beings, who exist as ends in themselves. These beings talk to us and teach us all of the time. Accountability to them, rather than to a hierarchical system,  requires learning the language of this relationship. To not learn this language is to erase these beings. It is a genocidal impulse, which, when combined with systems, leads to actual genocide. It also is a suicidal impulse, which when entrenched in an “efficient” system leads us to our own species’ suicide.

The Hope of Restorative Practices

Restorative Practices is one means of community building that offers a way into recognizing our interdependence while offering an antidote to the damaging effects of the individualized “achievement ethic.” We tend to look at schools through the ethic of achievement. Students’ purpose is to achieve success, and this success is measured by grades and test scores. This allows schools and students to be ranked according to the  hierarchy of achievement that is generated. Part of the hidden curriculum in this view is that students are valued in accordance to their level of achievement. This valuing is not overt, but it is nonetheless real. And achievement becomes the means to garnering future economic success. This, again , reinforces a privatized view of student as consumer, and sees the purpose of schools as being the production of economic achievers and consumers.

The theory underlying Restorative Practices, on the other hand, is based on the use of the lens of community, rather than the competitive lens of achievement, as the view through which we see our relationships in school. This theory understands that the root of learning is the same as the foundation for being human- that is, that belonging trumps everything. This sense of belonging is a fundamental necessity in learning. If I feel that I belong, that who I am matters and is honored, then I will engage as a responsible member of this community. When I am seen and welcomed as a member of a community, I will hold myself in responsibility to that community.

Education, in this view, is not about the individual success that leads to greater “status” and an increased income and ability to consume- a privatized version of  “success” which functions to create the illusion of independence and thus distances us from the necessity of the context of community. It is not about a form of learning that keeps “private” our true dependence on one another and on community. This illusion imagines power as the means of providing happiness. That is, it imagines that happiness comes with power over others, and with the power to attain “more” (more money, more status, more things, more, more, more….) Both of these forms of power lead to a dead end in terms of happiness as they are organized in such a way that they  provide a privatized version of security for some, while this privatization insures insecurity for others.  These forms create winners and losers, and accept a competitive narrative of what it means to be human. They create the 1% and the 99%. And ask around, few are truly happy when embedded in such a system.  

Restorative Practices, on the other hand, correctly imagines students as being dependent upon the nexus of relationships that occur within the context of school. It imagines that, rather than being a pathway out of community and abstracted from place, the purpose of education is to build and strengthen the social capital of community. It recognizes that satisfying happiness can only come with Belonging. These practices explicate and leverage the necessity of our interdependence with the people involved in our community, and thus require us to learn the skills needed to function within the communities we live within.

And all of this is crucially important.

But it doesn’t address what we mean by “community.” And a definition of “community” that isn’t explicitly broad will end up reducing community to being defined as people.

If we define community as a nexus of interdependent relationships, that is, those relationships that we are dependent on for thriving, then community certainly includes, but is not limited to, the human. In addition to the people we are connected to, knowingly or not, we are also clearly dependent on, among other things, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we grow our food in. We don’t think we need to point out that currently our dominant culture monetizes even these “members” of our community in a way that obscures our dependence on them. Essentially, this monetization of our water, our soil, and the critters that depend on them serves to Otherize and erase. Our food, for instance, is dependent on worms, bees and bats. But the monetization of food creates a necessity of scale, which means worms are erased with the application of fertilizer. Bats are erased with the application of pesticides. The concrete world is erased by the imposition of the market and money as the primary value. And, because of the continuous necessity of human life as interdependent with this concrete world in the most fundamental of ways, the logic of this system leads ultimately to our own erasure.

Restorative Practices are a fairly new movement within schools and communities, but they are not new. We look at them as progressive, and they are in our times, but they are actually based on the traditions of the indigenous Maori of New Zealand. As practices they go back to what has worked within community for thousands of years. In this sense they are deeply conservative. And conservative really means “to conserve” those things that “work.” (We put this in quotes because in our times, what “works” is often reduced to that which is economically expedient.)  The most “conservative” communities are always those indigenous to place. Their ways are the ways that necessarily “work” in accordance with place. If we are to live on what the Native Americans call Turtle Island and we have named America, we should probably look back to some of the traditions that have worked here for thousands of years. In fact, until relatively recently, most humans have necessarily acted with the awareness that we are always dependent upon the sources of our life that sustain us, the non human elements that make up our community. Chief Seattle famously put it this way:

Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man… the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

We used to recognize that all of the members of our community, human and non-human, are “sacred.” By this we don’t mean anything spiritual in a woo-woo way. We mean something much different, something very concrete, and, in the deepest sense, something very practical.  Parker Palmer said that the sacred is, “That which is most worthy of respect.” People, specific, concrete, living, breathing people, are most worthy of respect. The children we work with are most worthy of respect. The air we breathe is most worthy of respect. The water we drink is most worthy of respect. Anything that we are interconnected with is necessarily most worthy of respect. In the past, we had languages that recognized the value of all of our relationships,  and that helped with the negotiation of these relationships. The language of “achievement” and “standardization” function to override these older languages, thus erasing our interdependence with each other and the natural world. What if all of the time that kids and teachers took studying or taking tests was spent outside, observing, caring for, learning with and from all of those in our community, both human and other natural beings?  Such as these are sacred. And one way or another, we always pay the cost for any disrespect. We always pay the price for treating the sacred as profane, for making a commodity of anything that is sacred. How to live and work with this awareness?  How to teach with this awareness?

Again, how to include the voices of the ignored?

Place Based Education begins to offer some answers.

The Flipped Classroom: Going Back Home for the New Globalization

By now we are all aware of the technocratic answer that “flipped classrooms” offer to using technology as a means of revolutionizing the delivery of instruction. This form “flipping’ the classroom uses technology to puts the lecture portion of a class online as homework, and allows the instructor to work directly with students during class time as they practice the lecture lesson, thus “flipping’ the lecture and homework. One of the problems with “flipped classrooms” used in this way is that it doesn’t necessarily reimagine the “delivery of instruction,” nor does it offer a critique of this notion of “instruction” that needs to be “delivered.” “Delivery of instruction” maintains a comfortable stance well within the paradigms of hierarchical systems. “Instruction” is the means instructors (those in power) use to “deliver” content to students who, within this system, remain passive recipients of content delivered to them. This instruction is “managed” through technology.

We propose a much deeper means of “flipping the classroom.” One that actually reshapes the way we imagine education at its root, one that reimagines the role of “teacher” and “student.” One that necessarily invites and ground students in the context of relationships that are fundamental to sustainability and to the rebuilding of community.

Place Based Education flips the classroom by grounding students in the places in which they live their lives. It explores science from the perspective of the earth. It grounds them in social studies by grounding them in the relationships of their community. It grounds them in reading and writing by beginning with and honoring the languages of their families, friends and community. It honors art in all of its expressions as a means of sharing local culture. These allow for way a into education that honors students, honors tradition and honors place as concrete expressions of concrete relationships that students are necessarily involved in.

For example, we have been thinking a lot of “globalism.” If the purpose of a global curriculum is to learn how to cooperate and communicate with those different from you, then one’s place can serve as a global classroom. Try this simple exercise: Without paying attention to power relationships or “do not enter signs,” if you were to walk  for 5 miles (most often doesn’t take that much), you might come across wealthy areas, trailer parks, immigrant communities, living landscapes of all kinds. The “global” is here in the local, it is just that systems developed by others have gotten in the way of us developing relationships. And because these systems actively work to erase parts of our communities, people for whom the systems are structured to privilege don’t even notice. Growing up in NYC, for example, Ethan never went above 96 street. He was taught that it was dangerous. Later in life, as a teacher in Spanish Harlem on 105th Street, he learned from the young people he worked with that they almost never went below 96th street. They were taught that they did not belong there. There was an invisible border there. Bill grew up in a farming community, but had never walked through a corn field until forced to do so when he got stuck hitchhiking home from high school football practice. Walking through this corn field, he realized that this space was alive in ways he was previously unable to imagine. Removing these borders that serve to Otherize whole aspects of our own communities reintroduces us to the global right where we are.

Place Based Education situates students within their place. This context of place, when it is made visible, provides the opportunity for learning to speak the language of interdependence, for making visible once again a world that we are in relationship with, a world that we are. It offers a form of resistance to the dominant culture that is unconsciously set on suicide. It offers a direction for re-embedding ourselves within our communities for the sake of our future and our world. It recognizes that this concrete world that we are tangled up with matters.

Policies of Cruelty

So the word is out that the state of Michigan, through its School Reform Office, is aggressively looking to close schools that it calls “chronic failures.” It measures so-called “failures” as those that are mired in the bottom 5% of state schools as measured by test scores.

With that background in mind, there are many, many problems with this approach to “school improvement.” (Of course, one place to begin might be to question the logic of improving a school by closing it. I’m a Lions fan, but, then again, they make money.) I could write about the fact that in 2015 Michigan’s Governor Snyder moved the School Reform Office from the Michigan Department of Education into the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Yes. That’s weird.

I could write how many of the so-called “failing” schools are under the auspices of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), a state-run school district that was created to turn around so-called “failing schools.” We know how that has worked.

Etc., etc. (See other excellent critiques here and here.)

But most interesting to me are the assumptions that go into what we call “failing.” These assumptions represent the core of the problem with “school improvement.”

Viewing schools as “failing” allows us to perceive these schools outside of the context in which they exist. It allows us to see school performance as a problem that lies within the control of adults working within that school. It sees school failure as a “people problem,” and thus the teachers and children within these schools as lesser than those schools that aren’t failing. As Dan LaDue, Assistant Director for  Accountability for the School Reform Office, puts it, “We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.”

So the logic is, the adults within the school building are responsible for the success of the students attending that school, as measured by the single dimension of tests which we know beyond doubt are best correlated to socio-economic status.

In educanese, we call this deficit ideology, which scholar Paul Gorski describes this way:

“Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on ‘fixing’ disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).” (Emphasis added)

In other words, conditions outside of the school be damned. When we talk of “fixing schools,” we are really talking about fixing the people inside of them.

But let’s dig a little deeper into the conditions outside of the school just as a means of wondering if these might somehow affect the “performance” (I hate that word in this context- performances should be limited to stages, not something we ask of our children in the classroom) of those schools.

One of the schools that Detroit Chalkbeat, who broke the story, mentions is Detroit Pershing. This is a high school that was moved into the EAA due its previous “failure.” It is located in the northeast corner of the city.

Keep this in mind as I bring this together with another important contextual aspect of Detroit. As most know, the city of Detroit was under the control of a state appointed Emergency Manager beginning in  March, 2013, before it began the process of bankruptcy. This is important history. In May of 2014, while under the control of the state of Michigan, it was determined that those unwilling or unable to pay their water bills would have their water shut off. As I wrote at that time,

“In May of this year, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a crusade to collect unpaid fees by residents of Detroit.  They are currently shutting off water access to any Detroit resident who is either $150 or two months behind in payment. This will affect over 120,00 account holders over a 3 month period at a rate of 3,000 shut offs per week.  (The suspicion of many is that the shut offs are occurring in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy in order to make DWSD more attractive for privatization.)

Mind you, this is occurring in a major US city, the richest country in the world, that has a poverty rate of 44%, is over 80% black, whose residents have already have their democratic vote similarly cut off, in a state that is surrounded by 4 of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.”

And now, ironically, we learn of this fresh approach to school closures the very day after release of the report, “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit.” (The report was created by We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective– check them out.) This report connects the water shut offs to the foreclosure of homes in predominantly African American communities. It shows vividly the ways in which policies of austerity have a significant and disproportionate effect on communities of color that exist within a context of poverty. In other words, the report shows that when we see people through the lens of deficit ideology, when we imagine them as “bad,” and in need of correction, (for instance, when they can’t pay their water bills) we are able to ignore the harm done through structures that racialize outcomes. When we imagine our issues as “people problems” we privatize harm. We blame the victim. We replicate privilege. We maintain our power. We keep ourselves safe.

Water Shut Offs


Which brings me back to the context of Pershing High School. It is not surprising to find that this high school exists in one of the neighborhoods most affected by water shut offs and home foreclosures. It’s a neighborhood, in other words, whose existence is in peril. Students show up to school hungry, thirsty and homeless. This is undeniable, but it is obscured by the talk of “failing schools.” And to deny it, to allow it to be obscured, is cruel. To close a school in a community such as this, to take one more piece of property out of a neighborhood that has had its water stolen, its homes stolen, and now its school threatened, is simply, callously cruel.

Natasha Baker, Director of the State School Reform Office, was quoted as saying, “How long does a child who does not control what situation they’re born into not have access to a high-performing schools?”

We need to connect some things here for Baker, Governor Snyder and others. Yes, we want high performing schools for all of our kids. But we can’t use this wish as an excuse to ignore the contexts in which our students live.

It’s incredibly disingenuous for the state to pretend to want to help students as it supports shutting off their water, stealing their homes, and closing rather than investing in their schools.

We shouldn’t be lying to ourselves anymore.

Our state is enacting policies of cruelty.

The Price of Speaking for the Hidden

You may have heard that the state of Michigan is paying for the pursuit of a lawsuit by the Detroit Public School District against two of its teachers. And you may wonder, just what terrible thing did the teachers do that justifies the state’s payment of $320,000 in legal fees against them?

They are accused of promoting teacher sick outs.

And why would they do such a thing?

Because they cared for kids.

Such is the price these days of caring for kids.

You see, the sickouts brought attention to the fact that teaching and learning conditions in may Detroit schools were horrendous. As reported in CNN, “Black mold grows in the classrooms of Spain Elementary-Middle School.

Rats and roaches run through the halls of Moses Field School and pieces of ceiling have fallen on the heads of students at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

At Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, eighth-graders are housed in the gym and pulled to classrooms for core subjects an hour or so a day due to a shortage of teachers.”
Spain Elementary.jpg

Though there had been a pattern of teacher and parent complaints, nothing was done about these issues until Detroit teachers finally took the action of walking out. This direct wide action generated the publicity needed to draw attention to the fact that we must not forget those children we are leaving behind.

The teachers have been victimized for courageously and persistently teaching under impossible conditions, and now, as result of speaking truth to power, they are having the power that the state can bring to bear on them as a mean of controlling, quieting, and terrorizing.

This is the same state has taken no responsibility for its emergency management of the Detroit Public Schools district that the EM has brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

The New York Times reports, “In Detroit, the schools are on the brink of insolvency after a series of emergency managers dating to 2009 repeatedly failed to grapple with its financial troubles, while also falling short on maintaining school buildings and addressing academic deficiencies. “

So the state falls short on maintenance of buildings, has elementary classrooms full of 45 students, runs out of money to pay teachers, and then spends more money to sue said teachers for making all of this visible?

Understanding requires that we remember who it is happening to. It is those who have been most marginalized- in this case, specifically, the poor and black students of Detroit. Those who are easiest to forget. Those who remain most hidden.

And the message of the lawsuit is that there will be price to pay for those who refuse to allow the lives of the marginalized to remain hidden.

In his incredible book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen shares a tenant of civilization that certainly applies here:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often articulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

Sounds all too familiar.

Photo from

The Case for Remembering (And the Road Not Taken)

We live in a time that encourages us to erase our history. Our focus is on moving forward, making progress, all the while we congratulate ourselves for how far we’ve come.

We live in times where we look to “disrupt” as a means of “innovating.” Of creating space for newness.

All the while we do so without fully understanding the forces at work that created the need for change in the first place.

We do so without understanding the choices that our history gives us clues to.

In a recent article in the Detroit Free Press, the current Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools, Judge Stephen Rhodes (who calls himself a “Transition Manager” as means of avoiding the historical failure of “Emergency Manager”- see how that works?), along with interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, wrote an op-ed, “Focus on Fresh Start for Public Education in Detroit, Not Blame for the Past,” asking us to wipe the slate clean, forget the past, and move forward in order to do what’s best for kids.

“As a community, we can choose to focus our time and energy on questions such as who bears the responsibility for the problems of the old Detroit Public Schools, whether it was necessary for the Michigan Legislature to launch a new school district to solve those problems, or whether the Legislature should have done more.

As leaders of the new school system, however, we choose to focus on the task of creating the best school system that we can for the city of Detroit. We make that choice because it is in the best interests of the students. All other questions are merely distractions from the goal of excellence in academics to which we aspire. We ask the community to join us in that choice.” (Emphasis added)

As a superficial gesture, I get it. We all want what’s best for kids. Let’s move forward as way of doing that.

However, it raises so many questions that need to be asked. And to call them distractions displays a scary level of callousness for those who have been deeply harmed along the way.

For instance, let’s start with how we define community, who gets to define it, and who has a voice within it.

If by community, we mean a group of people involved in having a voice in democratic decision making, then you are erasing the fact Detroit voters haven’t been represented by a school board since 2009.

Should we forget that?

Of course, the new legislative package that allows for the fresh start that Rhodes refers to will have a newly elected school board. So there’s that. But, “A finance review commission, established after the city’s bankruptcy, would be expanded to provide oversight of the school district, which has been run by a series of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009. “

In other words, there will be a degree of oversight that exists in no other school district in the state of Michigan. Clearly what is meant by community means a community that needs oversight. Control. Surveillance.

Should we forget that?

If we forget history, and just move forward, then we can rest assured that the status quo remains intact. History, you see, is messy. And it may not make us look so good.

In fact, history can be pretty ugly.

And the recent history in Detroit Public Schools, very simply, is part of a long history that involves the erasure of black voices and black bodies. These are the ones in need of oversight. Control. Surveillance. I know, this sounds pretty serious. And it can be scary to bring up race. But trust me, it’s way better than avoiding it. (So stay with me.)

Instead, we go through all kinds of gyrations. Detroit, a city that is 80% black, has not had any voice in school governance since 2009. It has been run by the state under emergency management. And yet, the heavily Republican Michigan House calls the most recent bill that allows for Rhodes’ “fresh start” a “bailout” for Detroit rather than the state. This is a common headline, “Michigan Legislature Oks $617 Million Bailout for Detroit Schools.


The context of the article points out that, “The financially and academically ailing 46,000-student Detroit Public Schools has been managed by the state for seven years, during which it has continued to face plummeting enrollment, deficits and, more recently, teacher sick-out protests.” (Emphasis added)

And yet, this is a “bailout” for DPS?

We’ve already forgotten that we are bailing out the state, not DPS.

But the headline leaves the old narrative intact: We are coming to save those poor black people who can’t run their own district. In , Democracy in Black: How Race Still Governs America’s Soulscholar Eddie Glaude puts it this way: “The ritual act of disremembering became a ritual of expiation: the sins of our racial past gave way to an emphasis on individual merit and responsibility. Racial inequality was not seen as the result of deeply ingrained habits, racist policies, or actual discrimination but, rather, as the result of culture of pathology, which produced bad, irresponsible black people.” In the absence of the context of actual history, we are left only with the narrative that the people of Detroit are the problem, who thus created the need for a “bailout.” Structural, systemic causes are unable to be accounted for or addressed. So it becomes a people problem. A Detroit people problem. A black people problem.

See how that works?

We’ve just disremembered the facts and the freed ourselves from the highly racialized context of these facts. We’ve erased ourselves from responsibility for this mess. We’ve forgotten a history of disinvestment in infrastructure, white flight, and the abandonment of those left behind.

Glaude  writes about what he calls the “value gap.” This is the gap between the value that we place on white lives, versus the value that we place on black lives. He says that, “We talk about the achievement gap, we talk about the empathy gap, we talk about the wealth gap, and the value gap is this: the belief that white people matter more than others. And to the extent to which that belief animates our social arrangements, our political practices, our economic realities, under different material conditions, as long as that belief obtains, democracy will always be in abeyance in this country.” (Emphasis added)


This is a story that is writ large in the history of Detroit. And one that is fundamental to the disinvestment and the abandonment of the children of Detroit, in spite of the thrown bone of $617 million “bail out” created by the state of Michigan. A “bailout” that as Rep. David Knezek says, “assures failure.”

Should we forget that?

But most egregious is the way that the voices of the Detroit Black Caucus were erased in the vote proceedings for this “bail out.” These are the people who are elected to give voice to those directly affected by the passing of the bill. And yet, in an embarrassing and concretely literal example of white supremacy, the caucus was intentionally ignored in its pleas to speak to the legislative body as the vote was about to be taken. “As the House debated legislation pertaining to the saving of Detroit Public Schools, Democrat Leslie Love from Detroit was refused permission to speak. Even as her colleagues amplified her request, at one point chanting, she was ignored.” (For a chilling and heartbreaking video, please, please see this from Eclectablog.)

I suppose we should forget that too.

I suppose we should forget the erasure of these black voices so that we can start fresh.

Historian Kahlil Gibran Muhammad says, “…my whole point in telling the story is that we always have a choice. And the choice is not to be prisoner to the past, not to be prisoner to the existing myths that shroud us, but to make different choices. Because looking back, the benefit and the beauty of history and hindsight is to see the roads not taken. And there are too many roads that we’ve chosen not to take consistently in this country — yet, self-righteously, as if we’re more evolved, better, faster, more efficient, you fill in the blank.”

We can choose to move incredibly efficiently on the wrong road bringing us a future we are all too familiar with, or we can pause to try to truly understand our past, and move towards something better.

We can choose to search through our history for the roads not taken.

They are abundantly available.

Like Rhodes, I want all of us to move forward too. But the way move forward is determined by our understanding of our history.

The lives of all of our children require us to have the courage needed to remember.

(Image from New York Daily News)

When the Status Quo Isn’t

Fix the Mitten, an excellent blog hosted by Nick Krieger, recently had a post that decried the ability of local journalists to report on educational issues. Nick uses the post to point out that the word “reform,” when associated with education, has become code for “destroy.” As Nick eloquently puts it, “It is a code word for experimenting with poor kids and promoting private enterprise at the expense of urban public school districts.”

I want to pick up on this theme and explore it a little bit more. I am a bit shocked after all of these years of education reform, that “reform” is still given as an alternative to the “status quo.” Fix the Mitten shares that local Detroit Channel 4 reporter Devin Scillian, a reporter with a relatively solid sense of educational issues (again, something all too rare in today’s reporting) tweeted that, “If the opposite of reform is the status quo it’s hard to argue against reform.” The argument that the “status quo” needs to be reformed has actually worked to allow for a free market disruption of the common good at the expense of our children in order to create private profit. Knowingly or not, Scillian’s comment functions to promote the free market narrative of competition as the means towards reform, a narrative that has become so insidious that it is part of our language.

I would like to suggest that the opposite of reform, in fact, is not the status quo. Rather, the opposite of reform (as it is used in education currently) is actually investment and support.

Let’s take a very brief look at Detroit and see how this so-called reform has worked to date.

  • Detroit Public schools has had democracy put on hold with the imposition of an Emergency Manager. During that time, its debt has increased by over $100 million.
  • At the same time, unchecked charter growth has exacerbated the drain from DPS of needed resources. DPS enrollment is predicted at just over 38,000 for fall of 2016, down from almost 96,000 in 2008-09.
  • The lowest performing schools in the state were taken from DPS and instead placed in the Education Achievement Authority, a state-wide district that isn’t actually state-wide (limited to DPS schools) and has proven by all accounts to be a colossal failure.

According to policy expert David Arsen, such “reform” is going exactly as planned by our current Governor, Rick Snyder.(Yes, that Rick Snyder.)

“The Governor’s Education Agenda: Disruptive Innovation
In April 2011, soon after assuming office and just two months before announcing the EAA, Governor Snyder issued a special message setting forth his agenda for public education (Snyder, 2011). Noting the mediocre performance of Michigan’s public schools by several measures and the need to compete on a world scale, the governor called for sweeping changes in the provision of educational services. The plan offered a hopeful vision of educational innovation, entrepreneurship, and markets that would usher in improved models of instruction and student outcomes across the state. The policies would disrupt the prevailing complacency and mediocrity, ‘jettison the status quo’ (p. 2), and move Michigan ‘from school systems to systems of schools'(p. 8)”

Charter profit

This market imposition has created a weird dynamic, one which, as researcher Dan Cohen writes, has established a competition between traditional public schools and charter schools (a majority of which are for-profit) for state money: “The result: what are essentially two separate school systems — one traditional, one charter — in direct competition for students and state funding.”

All of this is intentional. This “disruption” ripens public education for profit and plunder in a state that has the greatest percentage of for-profit charter schools in the country, in a city that is isolated by a history of structural racism and ridden with poverty.

It hasn’t seemed to work too well for anybody except the share holders of charter schools.

So, what really has occurred here, is that a fairly stable system (though one that was in need of investment and the support that educating within a context of poverty requires) was completely  and intentionally disrupted by “reform.”

Which is bad enough.

But now, to have that disrupted system referred to as the “status quo” in need of reform is incredibly ignorant, or disingenuous, or just plain mean. It is victim blaming at its worse. DPS has been taken over by the state, charters have drained its resources, it has been ravaged by privatization, all to the point that mushrooms have been growing in its classrooms, and this is the status quo that needs reform?

All of this amounts to a refusal to look at the context of poverty and race. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “…nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income. The analysis expands on that national portrait to examine the extent of economic isolation at the city level. That assessment points to one overwhelming conclusion: economic isolation and the concentration of poverty among students of color afflicts not only a few struggling cities, but virtually all cities—including many that have seen the most robust growth in jobs, incomes and population since the Great Recession…these factors have left most African American and Hispanic students marooned in schools where economic struggle is the rule and financial stability—and all the social and educational benefits that flow from that—is very much the exception.” (Emphasis added)

You want to really reform education? Reform economic isolation and the concentration of poverty.

Or do you want to make a profit? Then keep up this “reform” and pretend it’s for the kids.

(Cartoon from Weapons of Mass Destruction web-page. Check it out!)

Look Out 2016

I was out with some friends yesterday to close out the holidays. The issue of education and “fixing schools” in poor urban areas came up. I explained how school “success” is measured by the use of “achievement data,” and that the results of these test scores have a high correlation to socio-economic status. Thus poor schools are set up for failure because of their poverty, and all of public education is blamed and this blame is then used as justification for disinvesting in public education, while increasing the opportunity for profit through privatization.

It was a short conversation. Some questions. No arguments. It was simple. My highly privileged friends got it immediately.

Why is it so hard for others?

Today I woke up and read a piece in the Detroit Free Press called, “2016: Stories to Watch.”  There were two separate paragraphs written by Rochelle Riley, a well known opinion editor for the Free Press, which is positioned as the “liberal” news source in opposition to the “conservative” Detroit News. (I put quotes around those words because I’m truly not sure what they mean anymore, other than to serve as abstractions that we can organize meaningless differences around.)

In the first paragraph, Riley writes about, “A tale of two Detroits.” This has become a common concern in Detroit as it attempts to recovery economically. The concern is that those of privilege are the beneficiaries of the Detroit’s gentrification, while the marginalized continue to struggle. Riley describes the “two Detroits”: “Detroit is a city of two tales…one of sunshine and joy and renaissance. The other a landscape of shadows, and hurt and longing.” Riley rightly ends with her concern of, “whether Detroit’s comeback is an equal opportunity employer.”

All well and good so far.

But next, Riley writes about schools in Detroit without making any connection between the context that these schools exist within, and their position in serving those most marginalized in her previous paragraph on the “two Detroits.”

This absolutely boggles my mind.

Riley writes on Detroit’s renaissance, “Success can come only with a viable working education system for Detroit kids that trains them to be responsible, tax-paying adults.”

I’m not sure how to even address this sentence, as it leaves so many questions.

First, it sees those in poverty through the deficit lens, assuming that those suffering from poverty must be in this condition because of their lack of “responsibility,” which leaves them unable to pay taxes. This is clearly something that these people need to be “trained” out of.

Paul Thomas succinctly explains how the language of deficit  functions this way:

“… the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled.

In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty… (Emphasis added)

Abondoned Detroit Classroom

In one simple sentence, Riley, intentionally or not, shifts the gaze of her readers, and thus accountability, from the systemic conditions that created poverty, to the victims of that poverty.

Linked to this is the idea of “what works.” Again, “what works” in schools is measured by achievement data. And the students in these schools are set up for failure. The game is absolutely, unequivocally rigged against them.

As I’ve written previously,

“…when we are unavoidably involved in anything to do with achievement data’ we must act with the recognition that such data is not a reflection of ability.  Nor is it a reflection of achievement.  It is simply a marker of privilege. ‘Achievement data’ tells us what we already know from history – our society is full of inequalities, and race and poverty are the organizing principles of these inequalities. This data, taken as real, has become the lever for the current education reform movement that is decimating our public education system.”

 Riley has fallen into the trap of assuming that achievement data is a meaningful measure of “what works.” She fails to recognize that, rather than measuring “achievement,” this data simply shows us where privilege lies. In this case, it tells us what we already know- that the students in Detroit are ravaged by a history of racism and poverty.


And this makes a following sentence in Riley’s article downright chilling. “…I plan to take a continuing look at programs that work. Every program should work. If it doesn’t it should be shut down– something I called for concerning DPS in my first column in October 2000.” (Emphasis added)


So much for an investment of resources where those resources are most needed. So much for recognizing the increased need for support that conditions of poverty create. So much for addressing the structural conditions that lead to poverty in the first place.

DPS refers to Detroit Public Schools. Shut down.

A visible, clear statement for the privatization of our public school systems.

People used to be ashamed of making these kinds of statements, especially in a “liberal” newspaper.

Look out 2016.

Photo (

The Blame for Our Failures

It’s been another miserable year for educators.

I could spend some time giving a detailed list of all of the negatives, but I’m tired. So just trust me on this.

I do, though, want to try to summarize the most disheartening thing to me. That is, the continued narrative that makes schools both the savior of our society (read, “economy”), and therefore, as the gap between our aspirations and our reality remains,  the recipient of the blame for our failures.

Unfortunately, I can continue to provide much evidence for this within my state of  Michigan. More precisely, my state’s approach to “fixing” the “problem of Detroit schools.” First of all let me begin to deconstruct the narrative of this line of thinking.


This narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth that education is the means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, with exceptions that prove the rule, this simply is not true. Matt Bruenig shows,”One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility…

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds,  went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and   poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor. 

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor  and getting a college degree.”

So  let’s be clear. “Fixing schools” is not the means  for students to escape poverty


In fact, “Fixing schools” can not occur without addressing poverty. The narrative of “fixing schools” addresses issues in isolation from the context they exist within. It ignores the context of poverty and racism, and imagines schools, teachers and children as isolated from the debilitating effects of these. Then, because these effects are ignored, the logic of this narrative leaves no one to blame for “poor performance” except teachers, children and their parents. In addition, the use of “achievement data” (ie., high stakes test scores) as the means of measuring the success of schools ensures that those schools most affected by poverty and structural racism are also set up for failure by these measurements.  As I’ve written previously,

“My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color  are ‘under-performing’ in schools.  My point is that the design and context  of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called ‘reality.’ My point is that the tests…actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.”

To summarize, this narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth of education as the answer to all societal ills, works to effectively ignore the conditions of poverty of racism while reifying the conditions of poverty and racism, blames schools, teachers, children and parents for the failure, and finally, as a trump card of the double bind, uses this blame as justification for disinvesting in public education.

It’s truly twisted, and leaves me tired and despairing at the end of this year.

This narrative appears subtly. And it mostly appears in what is not said. Here’s a brief example from the Detroit Free Press’s lauding of the new ESSA act:

“The new law maintains a focus on making schools accountable for the performance of poor, minority, special education and limited English speaking students. That’ll be key in a state like Michigan, which ranks as among the worst states in the U.S. for the performance of African-American students on a rigorous national exam. There are also troubling, large gaps in performance between minority students and white students on the state’s exam.” (Emphasis added)

Note that there is no mention of the effect of poverty, merely the mention of individual, “poor, minority…students.” This obscures the effect of the conditions of poverty while individualizing these conditions. We are left with a fantasy of individuals who can “be saved” from poverty, rather than on poverty as a condition itself that is addressable. It also reinforces the measurement of tests that serve to reify racism, without mentioning racism as a cause of these “large gaps.”

And who is left accountable for the ills of society? Schools.

It’s crazy.

We won’t change schools until we address the structures that stratify according to race and class. It’s simple. And it’s difficult. But to put our hope in anything else is a waste of time.

MLK Poverty

I’ve recently discovered the work of Lisa Patel. (Read it.) She succinctly summarizes:

“To critique education as an institution is, then, to critique the nation itself. To reckon with the longstanding race, class and gender stratification that is, in part, delivered by schools is to acknowledge that schools are deeply connected to the bidding of a larger national structure, put in place hundreds of years ago and reshaped into subvariants throughout history.”

Sure, it’s a big task. But let’s not waste any more time.

Please read:

Education as the Great Equalizer Deforming Myth. Not Reality, Paul Thomas

Photo from