Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part I

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education:

I'm lucky. I've known practically all of my life that I wanted to be a teacher. There was never any indecision about it for me. When I was in the second grade I would take extra worksheets home, give them to my brother to do, and then practice grading them. In fourth grade I had my mom buy me white boards and dry erase markers so I could lecture neighborhood kids on the American Civil War, give them quizzes, and then make them try again when they got answers wrong. When I was in elementary school I wanted to teach elementary school. When I was in middle school, it was going to be middle school - and so on...all the way through college.

I think my desire to teach (up until my junior year in college) was mostly about sharing knowledge, working with people, and I liked the idea of being organized and running my own classroom. It wasn't until 2003 or 2004 that the promise of becoming a teacher took on new importance. I remember finding a flyer in my dorm requesting college students as tutors at a nearby high school. It seemed like a good fit as I was a few years away from entering a masters program in education, and I thought it would provide me some real experience to help ensure that teaching was really for me. The students, however, were not the same students I hung out with when I was in high school. East Knoxville was (and is) not exactly what one might call affluent. It caught me off guard when I found out a majority of students rarely bothered with homework or that many of them were reading on a third-grade level (and some were almost entirely illiterate). It caught most of my college friends off guard too.

It wasn't long after my experience with tutoring at Fulton High School that my coursework began to introduce me to many of the disparaging realities involved with public education. It was a public policy course and an education course that introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez. It only sank in that the vast majority of students in inner-city students across the country were black and hispanic when I was 21, and I remember being blown away. I guess I had seen Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, but the statistics really didn't make an impact on me until I began to study them in an academic context.

"99% of students in the District of Columbia are black? That's not the way it was at my high school. Even the high school I tutor at is more diverse. Where did all the white kids go?"

I began to study education more and quickly learned about the catastrophically inequitable funding structures in place across the country. I was largely convinced that this was the problem with education. If a kid in one part of Houston has $3,000 spent on her education and a kid in another part gets $11,000, that's got to be the problem. I learned the most inexperienced teachers often ended up at the toughest schools and that they were paid the least.

I was outraged, and I told anybody who would listen about the problem. Teaching took on new meaning for me. No longer did I want the job of my high school world history teacher (teach world history and coach soccer - seemed like a good life), I wanted to do something about the problems in public education. So I urged my faculty advisors to place me at Fulton or Austin East for my master's internship, the two most underprivileged schools in Knoxville. It wasn't a hard sell; everyone else wanted to intern at Farragut or West (schools in West Knoxville that routinely send their valedictorians to Harvard or Yale - Fulton's valedictorian usually makes it into UT). I was placed at Fulton, and my friends asked me why I would want to work at a school where none of the students cared and where guns and knives were sometimes brandished at football games (and even during the school day). My advisor told me I was brave and that if could teach at Fulton I could teach anywhere. I, on the other hand, thought of my commitment as honorable. I was proud of my choice and wanted to prove to myself and others that I could not only do it, but that I could do it well. I was a moron.

Next: Reality kicks our hero in the backside.


  1. This reminds me of TFA and a lot of the charter schools folk. People go into these high-poverty districts with a kind of missionary zeal, and it rarely (never?) seems to end well. It's really a different world, and it's hard to understand if it's not native to you.

  2. Um, they spent two BILLION DOLLARS in Kansas City schools, and still they're crap. Money is not the answer, and dang straight when we moved to this area we avoided KCPS. You couldn't PAY me to send my children there.

  3. "Money is not the answer" is a pretty sweeping statement. Money, invested intelligently, with community input and participation is a large part of the answer, I would say. But just feeding it to massive bureaucracies that will gobble it up without improving classroom instruction is obviously not going to get us anywhere.

  4. Welll... it is a pretty sweeping statement, I grant you. A lot of money would sure solve some of my problems! :)

    But overall, it really isn't the answer if it props up a system that is NOT working in the best interests of the children. I'm not sure how you would propose to have "community input," as it seems most sweeping decisions are already made at the state and federal level. It isn't as though the "community" can get together and decide to scrap the tests, serve nothing but chocolate in the cafeteria and offer duck hunting as an elective at the local high school. Ok, that's probably not what everyone would agree on in real life, but you get my point...

  5. I agree that community input would have to be a big part of any answer, and I also agree with Happy Elf Mom that the federal government's intervention has pretty much closed the door to meaningful community input.

    Reflective Educator -- I've been reading through your blog and I totally agree that it's crazy on about ten different levels to blame teachers and schools for the "performance" of kids in troubled school districts. But the conditions you describe in those communities are so discouraging it's hard to know what role schools should try to play. What are your thoughts on what an ideal school system would look like in, say, East Knoxville? Would you have one answer for current levels of funding, and one answer for dreamed-of levels of funding?

    (My apologies if you've already addressed this question on your blog -- I'm still making my way through your posts -- just refer me to a previous post if that's the case.)

  6. Happy Elf Mom: I totally agree. Money given to prop up a failing system won't get us anywhere. I think that's why so many people were so discouraged by Mark Zuckerberg's relatively blind donation to the Newark city school system.

    Lots of conservative ed pundits like to point to districts like DC and NYC as evidence that loads of money doesn't make a difference. NYC spends more per student than any other district and DC comes in second. Meanwhile, student achievement (as measured by standardized test scores) often stagnates. But what people often ignore is the vast degree of inequitable spending going on within the district, as well as the spending decisions made by the district. They often choose to spend much of the money that is supposedly being spent on students on bloated bureaucracies that make little to no impact on the classroom. NYC may spend the most per pupil, but I don't see that money at my school. 80% of our teachers have less than five years of experience; we have extraordinarily limited access to technology; both of our administrators are relatively new; our building (with seven schools) lacks a proper clinic; there are routinely maintenance problems that hamper the learning process. So one might look at NYC and say - "They spend all that money and nothing doesn't matter." I look at it and say, "Where's the freakin' money going? Because it's not improving my students' educations." I would also point out that the community I teach in still allocates something like $12,000 less per student per year than many of the more wealthy suburbs to our north.

    I also agree that lots of poorly considered sweeping decisions are made at the government level - and I've pretty much given up on expecting the government (especially at the federal and, to a less extent, the state levels) to do anything positive for our schools (at least in the current atmosphere corporate reform).

    So what can we do?

    Keeping up the dialogue around the problems of NCLB and RttT I think is essential. But the government is not the only actor that influences the classroom reality. It is absolutely the responsibility of communities and, particularly parents, to hold LEAs accountable for their decisions and funding levels. (Parents are most crucial because they are the stakeholers with the least complicated motives for acting for educational change). Sadly, many districts distrust parents and deliberately exclude them from all levels of the decision making. But if parents don't act collaboratively to remedy this tragic failure (particularly at the local level), then I think there's little hope for lasting positive change. The community can't wait for their district to invite them to join the policy process; they must demand inclusion. As far as I'm concerned, community members must not only play a role in setting the agenda for school reform, they must play the central role. Districts should not be allowed to act without accountability.

  7. Chris: I think it's important to understand that current levels of inequitable school funding are nothing new. However, I fear they may be exacerbated by corporate reform, and especially by the current miserable fiscal atmosphere. It's also important to understand that schools do not exist in a hermetic environment. This cannot be overstated. A school's performance is as much an indicator of the quality of the school and the services it provides as it is an indicator of the supportiveness of the community. Additionally, the policies and funding levels across the country are being enacted in the context of a wider state, national, and global economy. Health care, the job market, and wars abroad all influence educational policy.

    So how much do funding levels matter? Well, I think it really depends on all of the factors I mentioned above and should be determined on a case-by-case basis, which is why, again, I think education reform must be bottom-up and depends heavily on community activism and participation. Sweeping federal reforms will only be effective insofar as they support local leadership/administrative/instructional development aimed at improving schools around issues that affect their local community. I think Yong Zhao would agree.

    What would an ideal school system look like in East Knoxville? In the summer of 2007, it would have included multiple wrap-around services (the kinds Geoffrey Canada has the luxury of implementing in Harlem thanks to $5million donations from banks like Goldman-Sachs). It would offer significant monetary and leadership incentives for more experienced and better educated teachers to come not only from West Knoxville, but from other more suburban communities in East Tennessee, like Oak Ridge (which traditionally draws teachers from Knoxville due to higher pay and easier working conditions). It would be implemented in conjunction with an extensive campaign to both involve and empower parents in the community. It would not have stopped funding the collaborative relationship that existed between the university and the schools. It would pay for sustained professional development around quality forms of assessment in the everyday classroom. Lastly, (and this would probably come years after parents had been sufficiently empowered) it would lobby Nashville to put less emphasis on standardized testing and fad ed reforms being played out in schools across Tennessee (which would probably make little headway, as Tennessee has been one of the frontrunners in RttT funding, but I think would still be necessary).

    Lastly, to both Chris and Happy Elf Mom: I would say that there are a number of significant educational communities in the US that have varying degrees of direct influence on policymaking, but collectively have large capacity to influence national, state, and local ed reform. I'm thinking here about university leaders, LEA bureaucrats, school principal associations, state offices of education, licensure consortiums, NCATE and TEAC, etc.. The vast majority of those with educational experience in these communities recognize the problems with corporate reform and exercise significant influence in how schools work. Were they to decide collectively the either put an emphasis on ignoring federal mandates (which, because of the 10th amendment, can often do no more than suspend federal funding), or acting against them, we might see positive change in the way our schools are run. This serves merely as a reminder that legislatures are not the only place for stakeholders to direct their appeals.

    Sorry - that was long.

  8. Thanks for that thoughtful response. I guess I worry that the communities that most need parent involvement are the ones where the parents are least able or likely to become involved. I'm inclined to think that educational policy decisions should be made at the most local possible level, and that the state and federal governments should serve mostly just to ensure equitable funding levels among the local districts. But I also wonder how such a system would play out in very disadvantaged communities. In terms of policy and administrative decisions (as opposed to funding decisions), how "hands-off" do you think the state and federal governments should be in very disadvantaged districts? What kind of regulatory or oversight role, if any, would you propose for the state and federal levels to take toward individual school districts? Should there ever be a scenario in which the state would step in and start making the policy and personnel decisions because a district's schools aren't "performing" well enough? If so, how should they measure performance?

  9. ReflectiveEd, could you clarify some of the acronyms you use? I don't understand "LEA", "NCATE", "TEAC", etc. Thanks!

  10. Chris: I share your concern about communities that most need parent involvement being least able to provide it. I'm currently reviewing a book (which I will post on my blog within a week) that directly addresses that question. I would recommend it for further insight: Organizing for Educational Justice by Michael Fabricant.

    Also, I think the question you raise is an excellent one and is absolutely essential. But I don't think it's a question with an answer - at least not on that works for every community across all time. It's a question that must be grappled with by communities and governments as educational reform moves forward, and it's one that organizers must come back to over and over again. It's a place for focus.


    LEA = Local Education Agency (basically the agency responsible for the administration of education for a particular community - usually these are school districts)

    NCATE = National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (a group that takes responsibility for accrediting teacher prep programs at higher ed institutions)

    TEAC = Teacher Education Accreditation Council (a different group that accredits teacher prep programs)

  11. I guess I think that the proliferation of "stakeholders" other than ordinary citizens (and ultimately, kids) is one of the problems with our educational system, so it's hard for me to put much faith in the idea that they will help solve the problem. I really hate that word "stakeholder": To me, it implies that some decisions will be made not because they're in the best interests of the kids but because they're in the interest of other well-organized groups.

    I tend to see K-12 education in the context of the history of enfranchised groups making decisions "in the interests of" disenfranchised groups, which is a pretty sorry history (slaves, women, mental hospitals, prisons). In this case, it seems to be happening at two levels: the federal and state governments dictating policy to individual communities, which are (or at least act like they are) powerless to say no, and ultimately all these self-interested actors being trusted to act in the best interests of the kids, who have no say at all.

    We'll never get the latter kind of disenfranchisement entirely out of our educational system, but we could certainly be more conscious of the moral hazard that is inherently present whenever one group claims the right to act in another group's interest. And I'm just very distrustful of any attempt by the states or the federal government to say that they know better than an individual community about what is in that community's best interest. That's one of the reasons I lean toward the idea of radically decentralizing educational policymaking.

    But, given your experience, I am curious what you think: Suppose the federal and state governments were to tell the citizens of, say, Washington D.C., or the Bronx, "We're going to step back and let you take total control of the educational goals, philosophies, policies, approaches, assessments, and all the administration of your schools -- you can do whatever you want with them, and you'll have to answer only to yourselves." Do you think things would get better or worse for the students (assuming funding remained constant)?

  12. The discussion of money reminds me of the line from Fiddler on the Roof: "It's no disgrace to be poor ... but it's no great honor either."

    Similarly, you can't solve a school's problems by throwing money at it -- but you can't solve its problems by taking money away, either.

    When I read about the "educational community" and the various layers of bureaucrats, I think of the private schools my kids attend.

    Private schools have way less bureaucracy than the public schools, but the education they offer is at least comparable to the publics (of course, there's a huge variation on both sides).

    Many private schools employ uncertified teachers, too, and it's not clear it makes any predictable difference in their performance.

    What would happen if we let public schools operate more like the private schools? In a sense, that's what the charter movement is about, except that charters are still constrained by NCLB, which is a powerful influence.

  13. Chris: I'm pretty much in agreement with you - except maybe on the term 'stakeholder.' I agree, there are people in the ed game who have more stakes in it than they should. But in the big picture, everyone is a stakeholder if education is truly the midwife of democracy.

    On your question - man, I have no idea. I'll toy with that thought this semester and see what I come up with. Really great question.

    FedUpMom: I really wish it were that simple. The charter idea is noble, but I'm afraid it's far too intertwined with monied and ideological interests in our current ed climate to provide the higher quality of education its supporters promise.

    I'ld like to believe in charters, but I'm too distrustful of the majority of operators. I tend to think this is sort of where I see an obstacle in the American ethos. We want to believe that individual accountability and competition are the panacea to lots of our complex problems. I tend to think we'd get a lot further by collaborating to fix our public schools - a challenge that should entail streamlining inefficient bureaucracies.

  14. ReflectiveEd, I'm no fan of most of the charter schools out there. But I like some of the ideas behind charters.

    I like the idea of giving parents a choice about where they send their kids. I like the idea of schools operating on their own, less beholden to the central bureaucracy (although as I remarked above, if they're subject to NCLB, they're not really on their own.)

    To me, the great untapped resource is the parents. In an allegedly "public" system, parents are completely shut out of any meaningful role in the schools. In a wealthy district like the one I live in, many of the parents have substantially more education than many of the teachers and administrators in the schools. But the parents still have no voice. That's where I'd like to see reform.

  15. Chris: My review of Organizing for Educational Justice is up - check it out if you get a chance.

    FedUpMom: I think regardless of the merits of the charter movement (and I don't mean to deny them - we can't expect parents to sacrifice their children for principles), it is a movement that will inevitably lead to increasing inequity in both student achievement and public school funding. It is a system that's based on competition for public dollars.

    Although it's certainly more long-term (and more easily accepted by long-term teachers and policymakers rather than parents), I think an emphasis on providing neighborhood public schools the tools with which to be excellent will go a much further toward building an equitable system for all students.

    And if you have no voice - you've got to demand it. If parents don't take responsibility for holding public schools accountable, then those who do will be far more likely to be beholden to interests that are not aligned with those of the students.