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)
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.