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.
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.
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.