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.
“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.