As you have no doubt heard, the State School Reform Office of Michigan has released the names of the 38 schools that are slated for possible closure. These are schools that have been determined to be among the “lowest performing” schools in the state as measured by “achievement data” for the past 3 years. These are schools that Betsy DeVos, soon to be cleared as Secretary of Education, calls “failing.”
I call B.S.
And, more importantly, I call institutional racism.
Let’s be clear and name this- Betsy DeVos is a huge proponent of institutional racism.
How do you spot institutional racism? It’s pretty easy.
First, here is what you don’t do. You don’t go looking for individual racists. I honestly don’t know DeVos’s personal ideas on race. I am certainly not naming her as a racist. Her intentions are beyond by my ability to determine. More so I don’t see her personal intentions as particularly relevant. (The same goes for Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions. Who cares if those who know him claim he’s a nice guy? See below.)
What is relevant are the effects and outcomes of the policies that she supports. These are very, very easy to determine. And they clearly support institutionalized racism.
It goes without question that DeVos has supported the narrative of “failing schools” and that she has funded it. In the state of Michigan this has led to a number of weird policies (the ability of the SRO to close schools being only one) that have become institutionalized through the financial backing and political influence of DeVos. (As an excellent example of how DeVos exerts pressure, see here.)
So let’s dig a little deeper.
What do these 38 schools on the SRO closing list have in common? They are in areas of high concentrations of poverty, and high populations of African American students. This is called a “disproportional outcome,” one that has a disproportionate effect on a particular group of people. In this case, we are talking about poor Black communities. Poor Black communities are having their schools taken from them. Poor Black communities are having their schools being named as failures, which allows us to avoid considering the racialized economic conditions that actually led to these communities having high concentrations of Black students who also tend to be struggling with poverty. Schools are being named as failures while hiding the fact that those in power have failed those communities.
It is shameful.
And it is, by definition, institutionalized racism.
Maybe we should ask, does closing schools work?
The answer is yes if your goal is to continue to steal resources from those most in need of them.
The answer is no if you are hoping to support these communities.
Not even close.
As an example, Muskegon Heights public school district was completely charterized as a result of the having been overtaken by emergency management in 2012. The whole district was given to a private company to run as a charter district. In 2014, that company left in the middle of the school year because the profit wasn’t what projections hoped for. It remains charterized.
Let’s check the race and poverty demographics of Benton Harbor, with 3 schools on the list: Poverty = 54.9% and it has a population that is 89.2% Black.
Detroit, with 24 schools on the school closure list? The poverty rate is 39%, and its racial make up is 81.6% Black. (Mind you, for comparison, the state of Michigan’s poverty rate is about 17%.)
Need I continue? I invite you to check out the race and poverty demographics of Pontiac, whose only high school left is on the list. Same goes for Saginaw. It’s easy to find. Google works. Tell me if I’m wrong.
So what are measuring when measure for “failing schools”? We are measuring, very accurately, the conditions of poverty and the racialized concentrations of Black communities.
In acting on these measures via harmful policies, we are replicating and reifying institutional racism.
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.
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.
“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.
My home state of Michigan has a law that allows an Emergency Manager to be put in place. This Emergency Manager has dictatorial control. Decisions that were previously made by a democratically elected city council or school board are given over to an appointee of the governor.
If you are a citizen of a country that purports itself to be a democracy, you may have some obvious concerns about this.
If you are a fan of human rights, there are even more.
One of the decisions that the Emergency Manager of Flint has made is to end its contract with Detroit Water and Sewage Department and instead pump water from the local and polluted Flint River for its residents. The good news is that it saves some money. The bad news is that this move is poisoning the residents of Flint.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, analyzed blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process, and found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels has increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead has doubled.”
And how much lead is safe in children?
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no safe blood-lead level for children. Lead poisoning causes a host of developmental and behavioral problems in exposed children. It is irreversible.” (Emphasis added)
Which, to me, calls forward a seemingly obvious question: What is more important, economic efficiency or human lives?
I guess we know where the Flint Emergency Manager and Michigan governor stand, because they don’t quite seem to be accepting the data.
“Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci told the Free Press on Thursday that the increase was ‘seasonal and not related to the water supply.'”
“Despite the state’s efforts to discredit the Hurley data, the state’s own data show that there are a higher percentage of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood after the switch.” (Emphasis added)
So, any level of lead in the blood of a human is unsafe, and yet, the state is arguing that the increase in lead in the bodies of children in Flint is seasonal, as if:
1. Such an increase can be rationalized.
2. The state and its governor can wash its hands of this particular situation.
And what does all of this have to do with education reform?
Remember, the way that our current crop of top down, data driven education reformers imagine education is via the vehicle of wishful thinking that assumes that teachers and students are alienated individuals who work in isolation from social systems. This logic thus suggests these teachers and students are responsible for their own success and failure. The way to reform is then to reward the successes of these individuals, and to punish their failures. Failure leads to school closures, which leads to privatization (and its corollary of profit-making for some) often in the form of quasi-public, directly for-profit charters. Distractions offered by the social context that they work within, such as poverty or the poisoning of their water sources, are irrelevant because responsibility for success and failure lies completely within the control of the students and teachers involved.
So, forgive my simplification, but the formula goes; low test scores leads to profit for some.
Now, if an entirely evil person were to develop a plan that would ensure low test scores, thereby ripening the potential for profit, what might this person do? Maybe slip something into the children’s water source to decrease their cognitive ability? This would ensure low test scores, create “school failure,” and allow for all of the profit-making such school failure leads to. (Because of the underlying assumptions explained above, it would also wonderfully and magically point all blame to the victims themselves.)
Can you spell F…l…i…n…t?
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Governor Snyder is an evil person with an evil plan. I do not pretend to know his intentions.
However, his intentions are irrelevant to the people who are suffering under his policies. What is relevant is the effect that his policies are having on communities. What is relevant is how his policies actually function. And the effect of his policies is exactly what is spelled out above. If his intentions include helping and supporting people, then it seems that he would begin to take responsibility for the damage his polices are having.
It seems he would take responsibility for the imposing autocratic decision-making processes where once there was the accountability offered by democracy.
It seems he would take responsibility for the dismantling of our schools, and for the poisoning of our children.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to see the connections between water and schooling- between the suffering of our children and the “failure” of our schools. We have to stop seeing poverty, ecological health, mental health and education as separate categories and start to understand that there is truly one issue that works across categories: Exploitation for the sake of profit.
This is what we must resist in all of the forms we find it.
Part of the sordid side of our American history includes Native American boarding schools. In the 18th and 19th century, these schools were established as a means of assimilating Native Americans into white culture. As Wikipedia tells it,“Children were usually immersed in European-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their Native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new European-American names (in order to both ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’). The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, they were encouraged or forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.” (Emphasis added)
The assumption was that these children had to be separated from their parents, from their history, from the context of their support system of religion and culture in order to properly assimilate to white standards of “success.” And this needed to happen because all of the Native American cultural characteristics were of a lower standard than the dominant white culture. in 1892, Army officer Richard Pratt said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
With the passage of time, it’s a little easier to see the racism, arrogance and violence inherent in this idea. And I know it seems like ancient history, but it isn’t. The numbers of native Americans in boarding schools peaked in the 1970’s. Not really that long ago.
The framing assumptions underlying this movement were that of the deficit model. That is, by standards of the dominant white culture, these Native Americans just weren’t “measuring up.”
Is this beginning to sound familiar?
The problem with history is that it always replicates itself now, albeit in somewhat differently nuanced forms.
“I had thought boarding schools for poor and vulnerable children did not exist until I learned of something called the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., which does just that. …
Children are chosen for admission by lottery, which means their participation is entirely by family choice, not imposed by some exterior authority. Kids stay on campus during the school week, returning home for the weekends.”
Let me be clear- I do not begrudge parents who choose to send their children to these schools one iota. Children are chosen by lottery, it’s not imposed without choice, and for many I’m sure it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I wish these parents and their children well. This is an important difference to note between SEED and the Native American boarding schools. My problem is not with them, it’s with Power and others who privatize the problem of poverty and assume education is the answer, rather than assuming that addressing poverty is actually the answer to problems with our education system.
I give Power some credit, as he does recognize there are issues with this model,
“Beyond the purported educational advantages, there are obvious and important social and moral questions about such a system.”
But then he continues,
But for kids in enormous need of a stable, sustaining home environment that encourages good learning, a public boarding school model might make all the difference in the world.”
The implicit assumption is that the problem lies within home environments rather than in the structural conditions of inequity that lead to difficult conditions in the first place. And this implicit assumption is the red herring directing attention away from the social context that learning takes place within, and replacing that with the individualistic notion that overcoming poverty simply entails pulling yourself up by the boot straps. You know, “they” need just a little “grit.”
In a story on the Native American boarding schools from NPR, their purpose is made clear. “…the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out.’Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything,'” Why? Their culture didn’t measure up. And we can see the ghosts of this approach in Power’s piece. Kids need a “stable, sustaining home environment….” The problem from Power’s frame, is not the conditions of poverty, but the home environment. One more, subtle and tricky way of blaming the poor.
In addressing the false myth of individualism, which Power subtly propagates in his privatizing of poverty, Paul Thomas writes:
“The U.S. is trapped in our false myths—the rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our pervasive cultural ethos is that all failures lie within each person’s own moral frailties, and thus within each person’s ability to overcome. We misread the success of the privileged as effort and the struggles of the impoverished as sloth—and then shame those in poverty by demanding that they behave in ways that the privilege are never required to assume.”
I’m reading William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, in which he asks the rhetorical question, “Can we address the problems of education without addressing the broader problems of societal inequity?” Hmm..
Phil Power seems to say yes.
I say it’s pretty to think so, but absolutely not.
Power finishes his work with this sentence:
“The compelling moral argument is that ALL kids deserve a quality education.”
I say this doesn’t go far enough.
The compelling moral argument is that no one deserves to live under the dehumanizing conditions of poverty. And, because education is inextricably tied to the conditions it exists within, attempting to “solve” education without addressing poverty is a waste of time.
Any attempt to rank schools that factors in the concern of poverty must be better than most, right?
I guess so, if you accept that the competitive, market driven model of ranking schools is acceptable, or that rankings based on achievement data is in any way useful.
And if you accept that poverty can be considered without also considering the ways in which race functions in our society and schools.
And if you accept that the real way to change children’s education is by addressing in-school factors while avoiding the impact of out-of-school factors.
I, on the other hand, accept none of these.
Allow me to explain.
But before doing so, let me applaud this attempt by the Bridge. I think it is a genuine dive into the issue of poverty. At least they accept that poverty has an impact on education. However, by accepting the myths I outline below, Bridge continues that failed narrative of “failing schools,” which hurts all of us, especially our kids, by misdirecting good intentions.
Myth 1- standardized tests measure learning.
In determining its rankings, Bridge makes the fundamental assumption that test scores measure learning. They don’t. Bridge recognizes that, “To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors.” Yes, there is a strong correlation of “achievement” to socio-economic status. However, the problem goes even deeper. As just a cursory look at testing, for example, if we understand that learning is a function of growth, of some kind of difference in a student’s understanding between time A and time B, these tests scores, as they are static, don’t measure learning. They are a tool that freeze frames a fluid process and focuses on where a student “is” as opposed to any growth. As a whole, we greatly confuse “achievement” with “learning.” And all too often, in these days of so-called ed reform, achievement simply means “ability to perform well on tests that measure superficial knowledge.”
Alfie Kohn, as usual, gets to the root of the matter when he writes:
“Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding. Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted to students (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command.”
Standardized test, like the ones that Bridge uses for its comparative data, do not necessarily measure the increase of anything of value that can be singularly recognized as caused by a student’s school experience. Instead, this data simply is a static representation of regurgitated information on the part of students. It mistakes correlation with causation, and the correlation is too often to regurgitated, superficial information. If regurgitated information is important and what we want in our children’s school experience, then tests work well in their purported task. If we’re after something more, then I urge us to consider Diane Ravitch’s caution:
“We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.”
But for now, let’s just ignore the meaninglessness of wasting so much time and energy on pretending that these tests somehow relate to learning so we can get to myth #2.
Myth 2- poverty can be taken into consideration without factoring race into the equation.
The fact of the matter is that poverty functions differently according to race. To put it another way, poor white people still have the privilege of being white. This is not to deny the difficulty of their poverty. It is merely to say that for people who are poor and black, poverty is compounded by race. Educator Paul Gorski writes,
“What we see–what I see–is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what’s happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US–law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one–protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.” (Please see Gorski’s invaluable,Complicating White Privilege.)
And because this is irrefutable, considering poverty without considering how it is affected by race gives only a partial picture. We can’t just talk about poverty, as Bridge does, without considering the impact that race has on how poverty is experienced. We can’t justifiably consider two differing conditions of poverty and call them equal in these comparisons.
You might be wondering, just how does poverty function differently according to race? For one way, see Gorski above.
For another, we have to recognize that because of our history of race in this country, poor African-Americans are much more likely to experience poverty in a way that is encapsulated by race. That is, the neighbors of poor blacks are very likely to also be poor and black. The schools that their children attend are very likely to have high rates of children who are also poor and black. Writing about this disparity in Down and Out, Jamelle Bouie points out, “A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation affirmed this fact. According to the foundation, only 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 20 percent, compared to a national average of 74 percent. Of course, the other way to say this is that 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of greater than 20 percent.”
What does this mean?
“Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime.”
Understanding how poverty functions differently for blacks and whites is important, yet it is completely unaddressed by The Bridge.
It’s as if race just doesn’t matter.
As if only the variable of poverty matters.
And this means that as a whole, predominately poor black schools will be rated below predominately poor white schools, especially when comparisons only consider the factor of poverty to the exclusion of race. (Of course there will be predictable exceptions , which by their exception prove the rule. And this rule obscures other factors that are bound up within the charter school movement.) And if poverty is the only factor, then we are left reaching for explanations that the methodology doesn’t allow for.
Structural racism is obscured.
Myth 3- the way to change outcomes is to address school quality while ignoring out-of-school factors.
Now, let me start by being crystal clear. Teachers matter, and in-school factors make a difference. Got it. I’ve staked my career on the fact that as an educator, I matter.
The problem is, all of the evidence shows that out of school factors matter more.
“Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed.”
See. Fundamentally, Berliner and Bridge agree that poverty impacts education. Yet, Bridge’s report manages to consider the out-of-scho0l factor of poverty as a means of directing attention back to factors within schools. It’s a magical trick of brilliant contortion.
What we all really need to consider is the question of, where do we put our energy? Into addressing in-school factors, where control is very difficult to quantify and thus know the effects of? Or in addressing out of school factors, which clearly would have an impact, though are difficult politically to make happen? Clearly, both are important. And yet the function of the current ed reform movement, whose narrative of testing Bridge is buying into, misuse in-school factors (i.e., “achievement data) is to direct attention away from out-of-school structural factors, which have a greater impact.
Berliner suggest that, “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.”
To be fair, Bridge seems to recognize this. In their statement that explains their methodology includes, under the category of “disadvantages” of the methodology, “Disadvantages: It includes any disadvantages of the standardized tests and does not incorporate other factors that can affect performance, such as cultural differences, pre–K education, and neighborhood factors.” ( )
Those seem like fairly significant disadvantages. And they are the same disadvantages inherent in any methodology that compares and ranks schools using achievement data.
Which of course, begs the question, why?
Why compare using standardized tests when these disadvantages are recognized?
And why, if we agree that poverty impacts education, write a story that looks at how to raise test scores that are themselves fundamentally highly questionable when we could make it all bit easier by considering how we can actually address poverty (and race) directly?
A. All is seen from the frame of the individual only and leaves out the importance of social capital.
B. Ed reform then layers on the “deficit perspective” to its frame. In a highly simplified nutshell, this deficit layer is competitive and colonizing in that it assumes that: (1) I am excellent. (2) Therefore any differences between us are deficits on your part.
C. Thus, those who are privileged by the dominant frame continue to maintain the status quo and their privilege, in spite of all protestations, by blaming others for “faults” that are out of their control (such as conditions of poverty and institutional racism), and using this blame of the marginalized as a means, consciously or not, of maintaining the dominance of privilege. If “other” individuals are in control of their destiny, it is their problem that they are not “successful,” not mine. If they just can improve (by becoming like me- I did it, can’t they?) then they can be successful (like me).
“A deficit gaze that pathologizes individuals, families, and communities is instantiated in pedagogical practices and dispositions that are primarily responsible for disproportionate levels of failure among poor and minority populations.” In other words, this deficit gaze actually creates the failure it supposedly is working to eliminate.
That is the deficit model in a nutshell. A model that projects failure on to others, blaming the victim while absolving a privileged perspective from any responsibility. It’s a model that privatizes achievement by reinforcing a culture of status and achievement where those who start ahead stay ahead, and socializing losses by avoiding all responsibility for “losers.” (See Stiglitz quote below)
” I’m thinking of what has been called the ‘return of individualism,’ a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to blame the victim,who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….
In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)” (Emphasis added)
“The return of individualism” is contradictory to the evidence, which shows, as Thomas points out in “Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact,” that “class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort.”
Thomas quotes Matt Di Carlo:
“… in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms.” (Emphasis added)
Wouldn’t it be nice if evidence mattered?
In other words, it is not the individual, or his/her habits, level of “grit,” or his/her anything that matters most in determining school success. Rather it is the “social context” that person exists within. It is the nexus of interdependent relationships that provide the context for this person’s life outside of school that is most important. So policy which focuses only on factors that occur within the school represents a huge misdiagnosis of the problem.
The problem isn’t school. The problem is poverty. The problem is the legacy of race and how it ties into poverty. The problem is a system of social dominance that privileges some while oppressing others.
I guess, even though it’s a completely ineffective waste of time, it’s much easier to just talk about school.
What does this mean for us?
It does not mean that individual choices don’t make a difference. As an educator, I talk with my students all of the time about the things that are in their control. About the choices that they make that have an impact on their lives. These things are important. And they require the support of competent people within a context of care. This care is my job as an educator. Your job as a parent. Our job as community members.
And I also talk to my students about the context of their lives, the things that are not so much in their direct control. About how issues of race and class affect them. I want them to be able to name these things, to point to the relationships between who they have been, who they are becoming, and the forces of life that help shape them.It is necessary for them to able to this so that they don’t internalize the blame for things they can’t control. I don’t want them to internalize the projections of others. I do want them to acquire agency in their lives. There is a power that comes in naming these forces, a freedom that comes with recognizing constraints, which is very different from accepting constraints.
“…experience has taught me that our biggest barrier when it comes to us as educators helping to create the change required to ensure more equitable educational opportunity for low-income students is the way that we, in education, tend to see problems as fundamentally practical, solvable with the next best instructional framework or bit of curricula or assessment paradigm. The trouble is that we tend to implement these strategies and initiatives without changing the biased ideologies that have helped sustain the problems we’re trying to solve. The first ideological shift is from a deficit view (or a grit view, which is a kind of deficit view) to a structural view. Again, even if I, as an individual educator, can’t change the structural stuff, I will not be the most effective educator I can be for low-income students if I don’t understand the realities they’re facing and how those realities are impacting the structure and practice of education. Looking through the lens of race, a racially biased teacher, however well-intentioned, is not going to be more effective as a teacher if she incorporates a few practical strategies for helping students of color learn unless she also is willing to become more racially just in her own thinking. Ideology, beliefs, world view drive every aspect of practice.” (Emphasis added)
The first task in the daily work the educator is recognize the limitations of the deficit gaze. Because this requires a context of care, a personal knowledge that can not be abstracted from lived context and then “scaled up,” this is not the job of policy. The choices we make as a community that are reflected in policy absolutely matter. But policy can not do the job of caring. Only the known human beings involved in our lives can have this effect. It is a necessary and tragic limitation of policy.
So then, what is the job of policy if it can not act from this place of personal care?
The job of policy is to start the structural shift.
We can stop enacting policy that functions to blame people for things that are outside of their control. Instead, we can develop policy that addresses the systemic concerns that are broader than the personalized context of care. We can create policy which addresses our growing inequality, that works to alleviate poverty. We can work with consideration of the historical legacy that race continues to have in our country. Because these issues of poverty and race are the ones that most affect our students, these are the fundamental policy issues that need to be addressed in order to create positive and lasting change.
The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes, “Our current brand of capitalism is an ersatz capitalism. For proof of this go back to our response to the Great Recession, where we socialized losses, even as we privatized gains. …
If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics.”
You can see the individualist frame that Stiglitz unveils, and, as he points out, our policy choices do make a difference. We need to stop enacting policy that serves to socialize losses and privatize gains.
As Thomas writes elsewhere in naming the ed reform movement’s obscuring of social forces the “American Hustle,” “We must act, we must do something directly about inequity while naming poverty, racism, and sexism as very real and not merely as token political discourse in order to mask those realities.”
If we were really honest with ourselves, and we’re not, we would be forced to come to the conclusion that the so-called “achievement gap” isn’t going anywhere soon.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not giving up. I will continue to work, educate, learn and do all I can to make this gap go away.
It’s just that I continue to despair at the degree of denial we are operating within.
Let me explain directly.
The “achievement gap” is a frame created and maintained by white dominant culture. This frame functions to externalize the problem. The lack of “achievement” within this frame, is a problem with minorities who are affected by it, and all efforts are therefore directed to changing minorities, those who own the problem. (See here for more of my concerns with the language of “achievement”.)
See how nifty that works? The problem is “those” people.
In addition to externalizing the blame, the frame of the achievement gap also individualizes the blame. If we just change “those people” we can solve the problem. This logic of this as a “people problem,” leads to the tired, failed rhetoric such as “the number one factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher.” Even though, as scholar Elias Isquith says, “… pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.”
Again, don’t get me wrong, the frame has done some good. The data it provides is so incontrovertible that we are no longer able to deny that there is a problem.
It’s just that language of “achievement gap” obscures what the problem is. It’s not a people problem.
The problem is that we have an equity gap. Our white dominant, competitive culture that is oriented around “achievement” simply works in ways that privileges some at the expense of others. And, if we were honest, we would recognize that you can’t talk about equity without including race. Yes, poverty is a huge problem. But all too often speaking about poverty becomes an excuse for not talking about race. And race and poverty are all too often tied up with each other.
By way of quick example, my state of Michigan has created the Education Achievement Authority as a state run district to “turn around” the state’s lowest performing schools. It’s a technical solution to this people problem of underachievement. Addressing the achievement gap was the excuse for doing so. It is no coincidence that those 15 schools taken over by the EAA fall within the boundaries of Detroit, a city that is over 80% black with a poverty rate of close to 40%. As the Metro Times has recently revealed, those children captured by the EAA have been treated as subjects in a poorly run experiment. This is not education, it is child abuse, but these are children who are invisible, and therefore subject to experimentation that maintains the invisibility of its abuse.
Detroit is separated from Oakland County by one road. Oakland County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States with a population of over a million. Its population is close to 80% white. None of its public schools has been taken over by the EAA.
So, this might lead to some questions. But that will make us uncomfortable.
I’ll ask anyway.
How can two areas that are so different in make-up, in wealth, in race, in privilege, be separated by one road? How can one be so white and so rich, and the other be so black and so poor?
Senator Paul Ryan and others would say this is a cultural problem. That there is a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates this division. His frame thus insinuates that the problem is with minorities.
It’s an equity problem, and you can’t address equity in this country without addressing the historical context of race. As Paul Thomas writes, “…race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. …If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice…”
You simply can’t address equity without addressing the dominant culture of whiteness.
But this is something that the evidence says we just aren’t ready to be honest about.