Sunday, November 01, 2009

Racism and Education Reform

A question for all you foundations experts.

On another blog we were having a discussion about the relationship between racism/classism and the belief that education reform is the key to social and economic change for the poor. I wondered whether a focus on education reform is a PC way for liberals to sublimate their racist/classist assumptions, consciously or not. And I wondered whether this association helps explain the incredible unresponsiveness of liberals to basic facts about education reform (like the fact that evaluating academic achievement in poor schools with standardized tests is deadly).

Are education reform in its current form and the "education gospel" more generally, representative of a kind of new "white person's burden" and imperialism?

In a sense, focusing on education as the "solution" to anything at least partly entails "blaming the victim." If education is the solution, then there must be something about someone that is inadequate and needs to be "fixed." A focus on education inherently implies that the "problem" is with those who are being educated (and can't seem to learn).

Who has talked about this?

Some relevant data from the discussion:
But the General Social Survey asks about 4 different explanations for why blacks are less successful economically. . . . [T]hose who give all internal explanations (blaming blacks for their lack of success) tend to blame lack of education less than 1/3 of the time: 28.1% to 71.9%. But those who give all external explanations (blaming discrimination, not blaming "lack of will") blame lack of education 3/4ths of the time: 75.0% to 25.0%.
--Paul Rosenberg (scroll down)


Anonymous said...

The whole point of liberalism is that it is the way that society is organized that causes "winners" and "losers", not individual capacity ("pull yourself up by your bootstraps") which is the conservative mantra. True liberals and progressives in education abhor what passes as education reform under Bush and Obama. Anybody who believes in testing as school improvement and KIPP-style/military/drill and kill standardized curricula for poor and minority students is by definition NOT a liberal.

Ellen said...

You pose a series of interesting questions. What do you mean by education reform being a way for white liberals to sublimate their racist/classist assumptions?

And how does focusing on improving schools in high-poverty areas implicity blame those victimized by poverty?

Aaron Schutz said...

The focus on schools as the or a KEY aspect of the solution to poverty assumes that the problem of poverty is due to some lack on the part of those who are poor that education can fix.

Anonymous said...

Clearly poverty is to some degree due to lack of knowledge and skills and clearly that is something that schools can do something about. These common-sense notions are the reasons why improving education for poor children and minority children has been and continues to be a bedrock goal for civil rights leaders.

Aaron Schutz said...

Certainly poverty is to "some degree" due to a lack of knowledge. But lack of knowledge is not necessarily a or the key for the large population of the poor. It is not clear, for example, that more education will make that much difference except on the margins. And, if that is true, then improving education as a "bedrock goal" may be misplaced.

Furthermore, we clearly do not know how to significantly solve the "education problem" however framed, PRIOR to solving key aspects of the poverty problem, unless (and probably even if) we are willing to put LARGE amounts of $$ into education.

My point is not that I am right about my statement, above. But I think it is a question worth asking, and a question we probably don't want to ask. And I wonder if some similar answer might help explain why the solution picked by most liberals (e.g., Obama) involves deskilling teachers and kids.

Anonymous said...

Don't underestimate the size of achievement gaps. It's commonly cited that on NAEP the average black 12th grader achieves at the level of the average white 8th grader. Whatever your feelings about tests, that difference has huge implications for differential entry of black students and white students into higher education and the world of work. We are talking more than the "margins" here and differences in the quality of schools has a lot to do with it.

The nonsense about "deskilling teachers and kids" is just that.

Alice Mercer said...

The point Anonymous makes, education should cure poverty, makes sense on the surface, and has been made before. Tom Hoffmann does a better job than I at eviscerating this line of reasoning in the McKinsey report.

Also, I'd point out that rather than thinking of poverty as the "lack of money" you need to think of it as an accumulation of problems and challenges that mean that even given the same education, will not produce the same results (me on this).

We need healthcare and housing security, and a smaller "income" gap. BUT I find this interesting, because you were speaking about race, not poverty, and it's funny how some folks muddy that up together (been known to do that myself).

The avoidance of dealing with residential, and from it, school segregation is sad. It obviously has some relationship to the achievement gap as the gap was shrinking back when we were desegregating. I'm seeing schools in the district where I live "resegregate". It's like if the school population gets above 10%, white parents start pulling their kids out of the school (a similar pattern has been noted in residential patterns). I thought the addition of Latino students might ameliorate this, but it seems not to matter. I've written a bit more here, but much of the work comes from Dr. Jon Becker.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anyone who argues that education cures poverty, in the sense that, say, earning a high school diploma is an automatic guarantee of a middle-class American existence. But it's also clear that education helps people in their economic lives, both at the level of the individual and the society.

Kids need good schools wherever they are and whomever they go to school with. Dealing with that seems a lot more productive than counting white kids
or arguing the caricature position that education doesn't cure poverty.

Alice Mercer said...

Anonymous, I really don’t like arguing with someone who is so lacking in the conviction of their opinions as to not commit their name to them. Look, you offered up an opinion, “Clearly poverty is to some degree due to lack of knowledge and skills and clearly that is something that schools can do something about.” that studies would refute. Just offering the SAME education to someone who is poor as you do someone who is not, will be met with the same results (your statement, “they all need good schools”). They need more than just good schools. You cite a gap in achievement in 12th grade, they’re coming into elementary school with a gap, so it’s not created during their schooling by schools, good, bad, or otherwise, it started out that way and will need more than an equal education to make up for it.
I’m troubled by the fact that I can count the number of white students in each the schools I’ve worked in over 13 years with just the digits on my hands, NOT just because it offends my sense of equality, but because studies strongly suggest it makes a pretty big difference not just for non-whites, but also for white students.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much the whole point of educational reform over the past 50 years, and certainly since ESEA was enacted in 1965, has been that business as usual has not worked for poor children and minority children. Given that, I think that the hands of school staff members might be put to better use than counting white kids.

Jim Shields said...

Certainly a difficult issue for those that work in schools. Outsiders and the public at large will always view schools as engines of the economy, even if educators know better.

On the other hand, it's a bit much to dismiss those who seek to improve educational opportunities as "imperial", isn't it? Isn't it OK just to want schools for poor students to be as good as those for rich kids?

Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman says that a one-word explanation for America's economic success is "education," although, being merely a Nobel Laureate in econommics and not an educator maybe he just doesn't know any better.

Gwinnett County private schools said...

Teachers need to teach what SHOULD be learned in order for students to take each growth step toward graduating. Parents have greater responsiblity when it comes to supporting education in their homes, are the ones who should be teaching about race and instilling social values.

Eventually, students OWN the responsibility for their academic success/failure, racial views and social values.

You can see that in formative years, it is the parents who SHOULD be carrying the heaviest load.

Anonymous said...

MArtin Luther King, Jr. brought forth the importance of education by referring to "education" as the great equalizer. With a quality education, children will become adults who are able to provide for their families, become productive members of society, and improve the lives of generations to come. The problem is that teacher/administrators tend to think that equity means equal. That is not the case. If we know some students are entering with different skills, we need to give them more. I think it is fear that forces good teachers to blame families or students...the fear that they are not doing a sufficent job, the fear that they are no longer qualified to teach our new demographic groups, and a fear that the minorities will become the educated majority.

Richard said...

I'm obviously very late to this discussion, but I do think it's important to reiterate the point hinted at by some above -- that economic equality probably precedes any chance at educational equality (even of opportunity). Education is seen as the panacea to all our social ills and this is a discourse that has dominated for some time (think human capital theory, modernisation theory, etc.), though its empirical validity has certainly been questioned in comparative education and there are serious theoretical and empirical challenges overall.

Peter Shrag wrote a good article about this for Harper's (Schoolhouse Crock) a couple of years ago. The point is that unless we actually have a sufficient number of well-paid jobs available, everyone finishing high school or even going to college will not necessarily lead to any poverty abatement. In fact, the growing income gap and competition for increasingly scarce good jobs may lead to competitive behavior that undermines the opportunity of minorities (we often see this in schools). In America, we don't like social programs to address poverty -- often framing poverty as a "moral failing" -- and thus look to education and support deficit thinking to absolve our responsibility for the "losers" in the capitalist system. Derek Bell, in Silent Covenants, makes another important point that Black equity and equality of opportunity are often undermined by a "silent convenant" between elite and working class whites to maintain their race privilege.

Deficit thinking is rampant across the political spectrum, but having done a lot of research on schools, I do think that teacher expectations of minority students does play a large role. They don't expect as much and thus don't push them as hard. Oakes research on tracking, Valencia and Valenzuela's research on deficity thinking (the latter in Houston schools), and the UCLA Civil Rights Project's research on overrepresentation in special education are but a few of the studies that demonstrate how structural and cultural barriers exist to equality of opportunity. Many liberals do seem to have a savior mentality that revolves around education as the means out of poverty (it is certainly an important component), but are there enough quality jobs for everyone who wants one? If not, is it fair to say that those with power will use that power to ensure their children have a competitive advantage? Can we even blame them?

I think of Teach for America as one example of this mentality: send kids from elite schools into poor classrooms and they will, with a few weeks training, solve this huge, persistent problem. Is it any wonder attrition rates are so high in the program?

Eric Indiana said...

Poverty and institutional racism are inextricably entwined with public education. We generally engage in myopic examinations of societal problem, addressing pieces of a problem instead of taking a hard look at the overall problem. I think this is because it's a hellofa lot easier to try to fix education by only looking at scores, or teachers, or blaming families, than it would be to examine the entire economic system that produces such vast inequities.

I just posted a paper I wrote on how poverty & racism play in creating inadequate and unequal schools: