Tag Archives: race

A bottom-up view of policy I can get behind, Part 1

One of the most satisfying parts of being in a doctoral program is having access to great research and ideas. Recently I have been able to make time for reading research related to the areas I would like to study while in my graduate program at Teachers College: inequality, educational policy, access to high quality teaching, race, and English language learners.

I picked up an issue of Educational Researcher (the AERA’s official journal) and began flipping through the articles yesterday. Like most education journals, the trouble with me is narrowing down the articles to read because so much is related to the question of how to transform American schools so that they promote equity rather than continue to reproduce the social order and larger inequitable political forces at work in our city governments, schools, and American life more generally. I started with the first piece, and I am still lingering over it now:

Raudenbush, S. W. (2009) “The Brown legacy and O’Connor challenge: Transforming schools in the images of children’s potential.” Educational Researcher, 38(3), 169-181.

So the idea here is that since Brown v. Board of Education, we have been making gains in reducing inequality (generally and in schools). Something happened though in the 1990s (and that something is pretty concisely summarized in 8 paragraphs of the article) where we began to see that there was a “cumulative effect of the concentration of disadvantage among those living in the poorest neighborhoods” (171). While the application of the term “disadvantage” still creeps me out when it appears in research pertaining to actual people, communities, and cultures who even in concentrated poverty have many “advantages,” I do think that Raudenbush has it right that trends in physical and economic segregation over the 70s and 80s resulted in our present American reality that race all too often correlates to educational (and hence economic) disadvantage.

In this article Roudenbush posits that we can transform the “amount, quality, and organization of schooling” to make good on the “O’Connor Challenge” of our post-secondary institutions no longer needing affirmative action policies because our schools would “be producing enough strong minority applicants by then to achieve diverse student bodies at prestigious universities without the aid of affirmative action policies” (170). His hypothesis is that policy can mobilize schools to take on the awesome challenge of providing and ambitious instruction capable of changing the game for those students traditionally locked out of our educational system. Instead of the overarching, top-down educational reform policies of our past, he argues that we should increase the amount, quality, and organization of our schools through “a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration” (178).

There is a lot in the this article to chew on, and that will come in Part 2 of this post once I have another go-round with reading it. I will though leave with an excerpt from the summary that inspires me to dig in to the ideas it presents:

In sum, the shared assumption is that college success is a natural outcome of continuous engagement in ambitious intellectual work from early preschool through secondary school. The central premise is that nearly all children will thrive intellectually if exposed to ambitious instruction carefully tailored to frequent, objective assessments of student progress throughout the schooling years. Such instruction requires that the privatized, idiosyncratic notion of teaching that characterizes U.S. schools give way to a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration. In such a system, teacher expertise in using the system will vary, and schools will e organized to motivate and support advances in expertise. This conception of the effective school has broad implications for school leadership, parent engagement, social services, and teacher preparation. Clarifying how such an approach can be conceived, implemented, tested, and broadly shared requires a novel sense of how practitioners and researchers should interact, with implications for how universities should best organize themselves to support powerful urban schooling.

The ever present discussion

As a white person, I lag behind my peers in my understanding of my own cultural and racial identity. In working as an educator in city schools, I have begun to build cultural competencies that I didn’t develop growing up in rural, white Vermont. I am deeply humbled by what I do not know about myself in relation to my own racial identity even as I consciously and constantly endeavor in my public and private lives to communicate effectively and empathetically across difference.

A friend directed me to a post this morning, and the author’s questions, dispositions, and background in many ways mapped directly onto my own. In the quote below she tries to reconcile her anti-racist values and activism with her skin color:

How do I utilize my White body, my White voice, my White privilege? No, but REALLY? Oppressed people did not choose to be oppressed. I choose to go against Whiteness in the ways that I know how and I am still learning, but it will never be enough. Ever. No matter how much I “choose”. Every second of my life I will continue to benefit and no matter how much I try to push up against my Whiteness it will just laugh at me.

I read this passage several times as well as the comments others posted in response. The writing elicited an intensely emotional albeit intellectual response. When it comes to white people and race it is always a choice. Born in this skin, I get to choose when to acknowledge that the rules of the game are fixed in my favor. It was my choice to leave Vermont and live in cities and work with non-white students and colleagues. Working for social justice is my choice, on my terms, whenever I feel inspired or compelled, I choose to engage in anti-racist activities. This is a privilege exclusive to white folks, and I am one of those white folks. No matter how often I choose to engage in anti-racist work, it is still a privileged choice.

It is hard to put the resulting grief of this realization into words. My choices have been just that: choices–active decisions to do something and in this case social justice and anti-racist teaching and advocacy. Those conscious choices are as much foundational to my identity as the food, language, values, and experiences I had growing up white and “country” in Vermont. To complete the thought, the realization of just how white and privileged I am, especially in the way that I engage in social justice or anti-racist work, is devastating. Going back to the blog post referenced above as the author talks about white guilt and white grief:

I also think that grief is a great word to use when talking about Whites relation to our past, present and future. How can we not feel at some level, grief? We have failed so many children in the school system, imprisoned so many men and women, infiltrated drugs into communities tearing apart family structures. On a deeper level I think people DO feel grief although I think others would argue that that isn’t possible since our actions persist. But,grief isn’t a comfortable feeling to sit with or examine either.

AND

I Googled images of slavery to put at top because the root of our guilt comes from slavery, although we should not forget about Native American genocide either. I was surprised how few of the pictures had White people in them, very few illustrated White participation. That struck me. How detached we are from our past. Who lynched Black men? Who tore families apart? Who allowed and at times facilitated their husbands rape of Black women? We did. When we learn/teach about slavery how do we fail to emphasis that? Slavery was not just an event in time. The actions of White people established a foundation that has influenced our past, present and future. It is okay to talk about that. It is okay to be ashamed of that. Vulnerability might be our only option and most valuable tool to destroy what we built.

I can tell you vulnerability is the word of the day for me. Remaining open to this discussion is painful, and while it feels right, it also feels futile. This has to be an ever present discussion (I lifted that phrase from the blog as well; it has profound significance for me today). It seems that I don’t understand the goals or the nature of my work and my life after all, maybe all I can hold on to is the commitment and desire to make this discussion and development ever-present everyday.

Dancing in the dark

dancing-in-the-dark-coverZora Neale Hurston quoted by Morris Dickstein in her book Dancing in the dark: A cultural history of the Great Depression and excerpted by The Root

“There is something about poverty that smells like death,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. “Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.”

Maybe it’s the rain dropping at the feet of the city and slightly rotten smell of the remains of summer leaving New York this morning or maybe it’s the lingering effects of studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade with high school students this past year, but that line people can be slave-ships in shoes just won’t leave me.

Dickstein continues, placing Neale Hurston’s evocations in their historical context, linking her undeniably soul-wrenching writings to the plight and social condition of those suffering the depression of the 1930s. In this excerpt the focus shifts to the Steinbacks of the 1930s and then more fully to Richard Wright. Dickstein has an elaborative ambition in this book, weaving the narratives of history, the author’s life and purpose, the books’ characters’ lives and purposes, and the resulting convergence of those strands. I’m excited to get my hands on the rest of this book.

The Wire

The Wire, in my view, is the Invisible Man of our times—a story whose characters both symbolize and actually live at the fraying edges of our awesome and terrible American society. At once fiction, literature, and entertainment, this moving, breathing, speaking novel deftly crafts a Baltimore where the lives of urban residents unfold believably, at once intertwined and individually distinct. Mirroring our American entertainment culture, The Wire does not entrust its social justice mission to one narrator, one character to which we pin our aspirations, our judgments, our own moral authority. We walk in Snoop’s shoes, see know McNulty’s nose, take in Michael’s burdened breaths. As viewers and readers of the American urban experience, we find the human experience in each of The Wire’s characters—though we crave with an unexplainable hunger those moments when The Wire allows us to live Omar’s code, Stringer’s smarts, or D’Angelo’s vulnerability on screen.

The character Bunny Colvin reappeared last night on the 59th episode of the 60-episode arc of The Wire. We see him as a foster parent sitting in the audience of an Urban Debate League competition in Baltimore. He proudly watches the character Namond argue in favor of the resolution that the U.S. should substantially increase health aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. Namond it appears, once a corner boy and school delinquent, is the only one of a group of four (Michael, Dukey, Randy, and Namond) adolescent Baltimore boys to find a place the city and in the city’s schools. We have seen the other places that the other boys find in the city, and none of us would want our sons and students to settle for long in those places.

I was struck last night by the use of the Urban Debate League; I am a coach in the league, and the pride I felt swelled as my own aspirations and judgments aligned with those of Bunny Colvin. I am Boston Public School teacher, a cultural outsider to American cities, a proponent for social justice, a college educated woman, and a current urban dweller: one of many types of fiercely loyal fans this TV show attracts. I am proud of my affinity for the show; I know that it says something about the way I believe the world is and the way the world should be. The character of Bunny Colvin, in my view, is the moral and the story of this TV show. I see in him my desire to reform, to do right by people—regardless of class, race, and the like—to exercise my professional obligation as a public servant. Next to that, I see the cautionary tale to potential system-wide reformers, to people like me. I see Colvin’s fall and forcible, disgraceful ejection from the system he so passionately sought to fix.

I believe in The Wire. I believe in David Simon and Ed Burns, their experiences, their vision. My friends, my colleagues, and my students all eagerly await episode 60. We crave this fresh, intricately woven re-telling of the great American novel.