Tag Archives: privilege

Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

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.

One road.

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.

He’s wrong.

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.


A Plea To Wake Up: Making Connections

Tim Wise recently wrote an essay, Whiteness, NSA Spying, and the Irony of Racial Privilege, in which he argued that, though highly condemnable, the revelation of the NSA spying on ordinary citizens should really not be much of a surprise to those paying attention.

“The idea that with this NSA program there has been some unique blow struck against democracy, and that now our liberties are in jeopardy is the kind of thing one can only believe if one has had the luxury of thinking they were living in such a place, and were in possession of such shiny baubles to begin with. And this is, to be sure, a luxury enjoyed by painfully few folks of color, Muslims in a post-9/11 America, or poor people of any color. For the first, they have long known that their freedom was directly constrained by racial discrimination, in housing, the justice system and the job market; for the second, profiling and suspicion have circumscribed the boundaries of their liberties unceasingly for the past twelve years; and for the latter, freedom and democracy have been mostly an illusion, limited by economic privation in a class system that affords less opportunity for mobility than fifty years ago, and less than most other nations with which we like to compare ourselves.”

His argument is that there should be no shock when we discover that the circumscription of the boundaries of freedom that has always been experienced by the underprivileged also comes eventually to those of privilege.

Applying his argument to education, we should not be surprised when the deep effects of corporate education reform movement come to all of us.

So far this movement has decimated geographies of class and color.  Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have closed schools at an alarming rate, disproportionately affecting black and low-income students.  It is clear that a history of structural racism and classism has made these geographies ripe for profit.  Michigan is only one state that continues to disinvest in the common good with a neoliberal agenda run amuck.  Wisconsin continues to fight its assault on public education.  (These links are only from the past 2 months.)  Etc., etc., etc.  Those paying attention have been warning of this for some time.

And this is now coming to all areas, rich, poor, and all colors.  I don’t believe that the corporate reformers are necessarily racists and classist, although they have taken advantage of these unjust systems for their own gain.  I do believe they are interested in increasing their profit through privatizing the common good, and this includes decreasing access to “government schools.”  Their tool is a plan of simply casting doubt on the ability of public schools to educate students through a formula of increasing rigor, measuring that increased rigor via high stakes testing, calling them a failure as a result of increasing cut scores until most schools fail, and then using this ‘failure’ as an excuse to defund and/or to turn over to corporate operated charter schools.  Combine this with the ramping up of common core assessments, a blame the teacher, “no excuses” mentality, an artificially imposed funding crisis, and bingo, the foundation of public education is fatally eroded.

Note that this erosion is no longer limited to those of certain geographies, color or class.  Wise points out the spread of the loss of freedom that those marginalized have always experienced.  This is part of a larger pattern.  Suburban public schools are now beginning to undergo the same damage that those in marginalized public schools have been experiencing for years.

It’s time to wake up.  And waking up doesn’t mean only fighting for our suburban schools of privilege, it means recognizing and fighting for all of our communities.  It means acting in recognition that we are all inter-connected, and that the common good is important to all of us.

Accumulation by Dispossession

Kirsten L. Buras has written a scathing indictment of the neoliberal reform agenda in Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism: On Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans).. Though it was written 2 years ago (2011), and though it focuses on New Orleans in its Post Katrina reform, this paper outlines what is now going on across the country. It’s an important contribution to naming and recognizing a pattern constituted of pieces that, when considered separately, are seemingly harmless pieces of policy. However, when considered as a whole, as Buras does so well, it becomes clear that these policies work towards the deconstruction of the ‘common’ in public education and replace it with a privatized conception of the market that benefits the elite. Buras’s paper is also important in that in excavates the importance of race in the creation of policy, and the ways in which race is used to leverage policy in favor of the privileged in spite of the language the privileged generate.

Buras argues that, regardless of the stated intent of restructuring education for the benefit of the underprivileged through the establishment of charter schools that ostensibly shake up the ‘status quo,’ “New Orleans charter schools are less about responding to the needs of racially oppressed communities and more about the Reconstruction of a newly governed South- one in which white entrepreneurs (and black allies) capitalize on black schools and neighborhoods by obtaining public monies to build and manage charter schools.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer news. The same intention, and virtually identical polices supporting it, is spreading around the country. Since this article was written, as two quick examples, Chicago has closed 28 schools and Michigan has started its Educational Achievement Authority- a state-wide school district designed to take over Michigan’s lowest 5% performing schools, (and oddly supplemented with $60 million in private funding). There are many more virtually identical examples of the neoliberal pattern from New York to Wisconsin.

What do these situations have in common? They all take place in areas of high poverty and large minority populations, areas ripe with so-called ‘failing’ schools located in clearly stressed communities. And the educational crisis in these demographic areas always translates into a profit making opportunity, what Buras calls, ‘white accumulation.’

This graph (click on image to enlarge) visually makes this point very clear:

The Color of School Closings

(For a clearer look at the graph with more information, go here.)

Buras asks, “…in what ways does whiteness function as a form of property, endowing its possessors with the rights to use, appropriate, and benefit from the city’s assets while dispossessing or excluding communities of color from the same entitlement?”

Buras goes on to outline the key characteristics of the reform that leads to dispossession, the privatization of what has traditionally been held in common:

1. The argument that a market driven, competitive model of education works best. Note what Henry Giroux calls ‘market fundamentalism.’

2. The assertion that doing away with local politics and bureaucracy (with denigrating references to the ‘obstacle’ of unions) will lead to fresh and innovative practices. Essentially, this demonizes democratic practices as being obstacles to efficiency. Also, it is not coincidental, for instance, that Michigan’s EAA is a state-wide district. It thus has no accountability to a local community.

3. Knowledgeable consumers will equitably navigate the new systems based on access to data. Note the shift from citizenship to ‘consumers.’ This also assumes that such consumers have time and energy within the stress of high poverty, to access data. And also note the assumption that this data is accurate and meaningful.

Again, the value of Buras’s article is that it reveals the framework that is being, and has been, used across the country as a means of privatizing the public for the benefit of the privileged at the expense of the poor and much less powerful. Buras puts it this way:

“Educational reforms in New Orleans are not designed to respond to oppressed communities or to enhance public school performance, even if they ar often couched in such language. Rather, this is a feeding frenzy, a revivified Reconstruction-era blueprint for how to capitalize on public education and line the pockets of entrepreneurs (and their black allies) who care less about working-class schoolchildren and their grandmothers and much more about obtaining public and private monies and an array of lucrative contracts...These reforms are a form of accumulation by dispossession, which David Harvey defines as process in which assets previously belonging to one group are put in circulation as capital for another group. In New Orleans, this has included the appropriation and commodification of black children, black schools and black communities for white exploitation and profit.”

And, as I have said, this is no longer only about New Orleans. Nor, as I have argued elsewhere , will this agenda continue to focus only on areas of high poverty/high minority concentrations. More policies that increase ‘rigor,’ increase high stakes testing and ‘raise standards’ will create more ‘failing schools,’ thus making more communities ripe for privatization. (A logical outcome of the Common Core by the way.) This is merely a symptom of market fundamentalism and the neoliberal project of leveraging the commons for profit. Ultimately this agenda is about dispossessing all of us of what is held in common so that the privileged can benefit from its privatization.

And, regardless of your race or level of income, it’s coming to a school near you.

The Benevolent Arrogance of Self-Insulated Power in Educational Policy

I just came home from the annual conference of the North Dakota Study Group, which was incredible in a number of ways. I hope to delineate some of this in future posts, but for now, I want to focus on the fresh way this conference helped me see the extension of power, and I’ll focus specifically on the power currently being extended through the tool of educational policy.

In a nutshell, current educational policy sustains and extends the power and privilege of those who currently benefit from our economic system and insulates them from the damage created by this policy. As Michelle Fine has written, “The dispossession of those living in poverty, communities of color and immigrants is intimately linked to the elite accumulation of capital, real estate, opportunities and bright futures for the young.”

Ideally, any policy is enacted in order to meet the goals of those who are affected by it. The general process in this ideal is that all of those affected are gathered, they dialogue, argue and eventually agree on goals and ways of enacting those goals for the benefit of all. In education policy, if this ideal were to be followed, that would mean community members, students, teachers, administrators all of those involved in an education system, would be included in the development of the policy and the carrying out of the policy.

Not so. In the strange world of neo-liberalism, which continues its ugly ascension, the primary purpose of education is to provide access to economic benefit. (I hope you can accept this assumption, if not, read more here.) Because this economic benefit is the primary value, who better to create economic policy than those who benefit most from the economic system? So representatives of power in this system get to write policy that will sustain and increase their power. Check out the background of any current educational policy and see who was involved. Rarely, if ever, will you see teachers or community members, particularly those members of underprivileged communities. Instead, you will see the tycoons of business and politicians. These outsiders arrogantly impose their policy on members of a community who are thus victims of that policy because their voices were not included in the creation of it. Worse, they become “accountable” to that policy. (See my previous post covering the process of deprofessionalizing teachers.) The resulting policy creates a rigged game, with test score measures that questionably determine future success, but without question measure socio-economic status, and are used to ‘rate’ schools and teachers. The scores are used to then blame and demonize those teachers, particularly in underprivileged communities, and then to destabilize schools, and thus their communities, which can then be further demonized because of their further destabilization. (See Paul Thomas’s analysis of this “no-excuses” approach to education reform, and the “culture of shame” it creates.)

As a quick example, parent trigger laws ostensibly are enacted to empower parents and protect them, and their children, from the effect of poor schooling. This language of empowerment hides the fact that the school is “poor” because the neighborhood is poor. It hides the fact that this empowerment of parents allows those with enough capital to move, thus pulling their capital from the community by moving to another school, thus further tearing apart the social capital of the community left behind, leaving it weaker and more vulnerable than before. Of course as a result test scores will slide, we can the further demonize these teachers and students, and the cycle can continue.

As another, somewhat different way in, I bring you the proposal of the Oxford Foundation in Michigan. Its founder, and the prime writer of its policy, is Richard McLellan. McLellan was appointed by billionaire governor Rick Snyder to explore some ways to flesh out the “anytime, anywhere” legislation that the governor hopes to put in place. Allow me point out the context from which both Governor Snyder and McLellan see the world. Both are white. Both are rich. Neither has any experience that I know of from which to see outside of the perspective of being rich, white, powerful business leaders. Both have a background in business and having been highly successful in that world. Snyder sends his children to an exclusive independent school that costs $18,000 a year. (I don’t fault him for this, but it is one more reinforcement of his limited, insulated perspective.) McLellan has been involved in Republican circles as a primary mover behind previous attempts to enact voucher legislation in Michigan, “…a leader in efforts in Michigan to expand school choice for Michigan students…,” and is a founder of the right-wing think tank, the Mackinac Center.

Given these facts, it should not have been hard to predict the kind of legislation the Oxford Foundation would come up with. (For an analysis of the plan, and a link to it, see this. As you read, ask yourself, who will most benefit from this policy? What will the effect be on struggling schools and communities? Who will be hurt? Who are the winners, and who are the losers?) My point here is not the legislation itself, but to critique the difficulty of escaping the self-insulation that power and privilege provide. I do not think that Snyder and McLellan are bad men intending to do harm. I do think they are ignorant men unable to see behind the wall that their perspective creates. I do think their arrogance is benevolent, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful.

These kinds of policies function insulate the policy makers from the effects of the their policy by benefiting them, and by allowing them, and the media, to demonize the victims of their policy. Unfortunately, these are only two examples from a growing plethora of options.