Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"The Current Language of Educational Reform . . . Tends to Approach Education as if History had Never Happened."

Posted By on Tue, Sep 22, 2015 at 5:00 PM

click to enlarge erase_history.jpg

It feels to me like we're experiencing a renaissance of brilliant, talented black writers discussing racial issues in print. Maybe people have been writing like this all along but it hasn't made the mainstream media. Or maybe it's been in mainstream media all along and I haven't been paying enough attention. Well, I'm paying attention now, to writers like Michelle Alexander whose 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, presented the fundamental arguments against mass incarceration, and Ta-Nehisi Coates whose book, Between the World and Me, is the finest discussion of racism in America I've read in decades and one of the finest examples of nonfiction as literature I've read in at least as long. (Coates, by the way, has the cover story in this month's Atlantic MagazineThe Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a long, excellent article I'm working my way through. For comic book fans, Coates is going to write the next "Black Panther" series published by Marvel Comics, a series which presented the first black superhero in 1966.)

And I'm going to be reading more work by Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at the New Yorker. A few weeks ago, he wrote Class Notes: What’s really at stake when a school closes? It's a first person account of the history of Jamaica High School in Queens, which he attended in the 1980s and which closed recently. It's an interesting discussion of the way Jamaica High went from a school attended by white students to a predominantly black school with diminishing enrollment. The whole article is worth a read.

The part I want to spotlight is near the end, where Cobb discusses the debate raging about our "failing schools." Are they "failing" because the teachers, the unions, the administrators and the district are doing a lousy job, or are the problems more a function of societal problems like racism and income inequality? Obviously, it's not an either-or question, but you can tell where people stand on the issue by how they answer it. Today's "education reformers" tend to be public school—or in their favored terminology, "government school"—bashers. Don't blame society, they say, fix the schools, or get rid of the "failing schools" and start over, and you'll fix the problem. The other side, which really doesn't have a name—"progressive educators" is as good as any—says you can't expect the schools to fix the injustices or heal the wounds created by the outside society all by themselves. The schools are part of the process of improvement, but they can't do their jobs effectively while societal problems are allowed to fester. Cobbs is on the "progressive" side of the argument, as am I.

I'm going to copy a long, complex passage from the article which, I think, brilliantly summarizes the history of school integration since Brown v. Board of Education, but before I do, let me pull out two salient lines.

"Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools."

"The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial “achievement gaps” and “underperforming schools” but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened."
Here's the whole passage.
In a way, the protests over school closure are a bookend to the riots that broke out over busing four decades ago. Like “busing” and “integration,” the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education. Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools.

In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society. Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with “acting white” were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African-Americans. The onus shifted, and public policy followed. The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial “achievement gaps” and “underperforming schools” but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened. Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes. Last year, a study by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found that New York has the most segregated school system in the country, a reflection of the persistence of the housing patterns that Arthur Levitt talked about in 1954 but also of the failure of the integrationist ideal that was intended to address it. From that vantage point, the closure of Jamaica seemed to be less about the interment of a single school than about the impeachment of a particular brand of idealism regarding race and, by extension, American education.

Ninety years ago, the City of New York broke ground on a huge, beautiful building [Jamaica High School] as a symbol of its commitment to public education. Last year, it closed the school that the building housed, purportedly for the same reasons. The people who gathered angrily outside Jamaica High School weren’t really protesting its closing; they were protesting the complex of history, policy, poverty, and race that had brought it about.

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