Silencing Dialogue: More on Turning the Deficit Gaze

In speaking about and thinking about the achievement gap, I am beginning to empathize greatly with the educators of color that Lisa Delpit quotes in her article, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,

Delpit shows the way that experiences that are beyond the range of those in the dominant culture are unable to be taken into consideration by the dominant culture.  Minority voices are thus silenced.  As a telling example, Delpit quotes a Black woman principal who is working on her Phd:

“If you try to suggest that that’s not quite the way it is, they get defensive, then you get defensive, then they’ll start reciting research. I try to give them my experiences, to explain. They just look and nod. The more I try to explain, they just look and nod,just keep looking and nodding. They don’t really hear me. Then, when it’s time for class to be over, the professor tells me to come to his office to talk more. So I go. He asks for more examples of what I’m talking about, and he looks and nods while I give them. Then he says that that’s just my experiences. It doesn’t really apply to most Black people. It becomes futile because they think they know everything about everybody. What you have to say about your life, your children, doesn’t mean anything. They don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They wear blinders and earplugs. They only want to go on research they’ve read that other White people have written. It just doesn’t make any sense to keep talking to them.”

I would suggest that any attempt to critique the dominant culture is silenced in the same way.  For instance, in Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit shows how this plays out in gender issues. “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Some men.” I want to clearly point out those driving education reform in its current iteration present at best a failed attempt to “reform” a system that, as outsiders, they have little knowledge of, yet hold much sway over because of the power they retain within the dominant culture.  In this process, educators who work with children are marginalized and silenced.

Want a clear example? How about 2 rich, white guys, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, generously offering their take on fixing education.

That quote comes back, “They don’t really hear me.”

And when the unintentional racism that Delpit exposes is combined with the privilege and power of outsiders, the effect is compounded.

That is why Jamie Utt’s recent article, 5 Things Well Meaning White Educators Should Consider if They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap  is so important.  The article shows the growth of someone who becomes aware of his own racialization as a white person and the effect of that growth. It points out the racist roots of the “achievement gap,” and shows how this deficit model of education, and of so-called “failing schools,” hurts all children.

The article also importantly shows how the deficit model of the “achievement gap” functions to hide the social context of education.

“Many of us fail to acknowledge that terms like ‘the achievement gap’ place the responsibility of change on students – and specifically poor and working class students of Color.

Yet, in my experience offering professional development to educators, most of the White teachers I work with are well-intentioned despite the damage we may be doing with these victim-blaming, deficit-oriented beliefs.

However, when at least 80% of our teachers in the United States are White and the most powerful decision makers tend to be White or are pushing White-designed models of reform, is it any wonder that we inaccurately perceive this country’s educational inequity as being the result of a student-deficit ‘achievement gap’ – a term dating back to White “reformers” of the 1960s – rather than, say, systemic oppression and marginalization?

Utt goes on to show that schools have been designed to serve those of privilege.

“And simply put, when our schools have been set up to serve Whites while excluding all but a few people of Color, it makes sense that White people are far more likely to have an advanced education.

In fact, Black men in the US actually must have a higher level of education than White men to get the same jobs, so even when those who’ve been left out of the system succeed, the deck is stacked against them!”

Utt points out the importance of  understanding the ways that, “…the broader picture where “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society ..” have contributed to what scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has labelled the “education debt.”

“When we refuse to invest properly in the education of those with the least access, we see the results in our test scores and in every other measure of injustice in our society: poverty, employment, wealth accumulation, health disparity, exposure to violence and stress, and so on.”

In the same vein, Paul Thomas writes:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words,achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

We know this. We’ve known this.

Who will listen?

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