Category Archives: zero tolerance

Recommended: Ending Zero Tolerance The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, Derek W. Black

Ending Zero Tolerance The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, Derek W. Black

From publisher’s web site:

In the era of zero tolerance, we are flooded with stories about schools issuing draconian punishments for relatively innocent behavior. One student was suspended for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. Another was expelled for cursing on social media from home. Suspension and expulsion rates have doubled over the past three decades as zero tolerance policies have become the normal response to a host of minor infractions that extend well beyond just drugs and weapons. Students from all demographic groups have suffered, but minority and special needs students have suffered the most. On average, middle and high schools suspend one out of four African American students at least once a year.

The effects of these policies are devastating.  Just one suspension in the ninth grade doubles the likelihood that a student will drop out. Fifty percent of students who drop out are subsequently unemployed. Eighty percent of prisoners are high school drop outs. The risks associated with suspension and expulsion are so high that, as a practical matter, they amount to educational death penalties, not behavioral correction tools. Most important, punitive discipline policies undermine the quality of education that innocent bystanders receive as well—the exact opposite of what schools intend.

Ending Zero Tolerance answers the calls of grassroots communities pressing for integration and increased education funding with a complete rethinking of school discipline. Derek Black, a former attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, weaves stories about individual students, lessons from social science, and the outcomes of courts cases to unearth a shockingly irrational system of punishment. While schools and legislatures have proven unable and unwilling to amend their failing policies, Ending Zero Tolerance argues for constitutional protections to check abuses in school discipline and lays out theories by which courts should re-engage to enforce students’ rights and support broader reforms.

REVIEWS

  • “Zero-tolerance policies fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionately deny educational opportunities to already disadvantaged student populations. In this volume, Derek Black not only describes the problem but proposes a solution—intervention by state and federal courts.  In an era when many are losing faith in courts to protect students, Black makes a persuasive case that courts can and should play a productive role in safeguarding the basic rights of students.  This book is a cogent, comprehensive, and creative resource for all those who seek to dismantle one of the most pervasive contributors to educational inequality in this country.”

    —James E. Ryan, Charles William Eliot Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

  • “Black’s book is necessary reading for educators and those who work with youth, whether during classroom hours or in an after-school setting.”

    Youth Today

  • “With the intent to address the toxic environment that zero tolerance perpetuates, Black outlines a convincing argument that the courts must step in to speed reform and ensure that all students are cared for equally.”

    Library Journal

  • “In Ending Zero Tolerance, Professor Derek Black sheds light on how both law and policy are inviting schools to harshly punish students in ways that greatly harm the disciplined student, his or her peers, academic outcomes and our national commitment to equal educational opportunity. He also proposes insightful and attainable legal reforms that could end this crisis.Ending Zero Tolerance is a must-read for all who are committed to fair discipline policies.”

    —Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, Professor, University of Richmond School of Law

  • “Derek Black has written a magnificent book that shows how the current approach to disciplining children in schools undermines education, discriminates against children of color, and violates the most basic notions of due process.  He makes a compelling case that courts must be involved in reforming school discipline.  This book is must reading for all involved in education and all who care about the American educational system.”

    —Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean, University of California, Irvine School of Law

  • “Now is the time to revisit much of the legal thinking about the constitutional rights of public school students, because so many of them were originally pronounced during the Civil Rights Era… There is no question that Ending Zero Tolerance will be of great interest to a diverse audience of people interested in public education.”

    —Kevin Brown, Richard S. Melvin Professor of Law Indiana University Maurer School of Law-Bloomington

  • “Black convincingly explains how the nation’s inflexible, exclusionary and counterproductive approach to school discipline has swung far out of balance. This extraordinarily important book carefully outlines the legal and policy thinking that should serve as a cornerstone for the lawyers, policymakers and judges who must re-balance this destructive system.”

    —Kevin Welner, co-editor, Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance

The Everyday Crimes of Race and Class

Consider carefully the U.S. when children were subjected to horrific labor.

Were the children culpable for that abuse? Did children have the physical or political power to end the abuse?

Or were the adults responsible—the only agents of that process capable of ending child labor?

These may seem to be silly questions with obvious answers, but when racism, classism, and sexism are confronted in the U.S., many shift the accusatory finger to the victims, calling for the victims themselves to right the wrongs leveled against them.

Black and brown people in the U.S. did not create racism, do not perpetuate racism, and cannot end racism. Poor people do not cause poverty, and despite what pandering conservatives believe, cannot “think [their] way out of poverty.” And women are not the cause of rape culture, inequitable pay, and domestic abuse; they cannot end them either.

Change ultimately lies with those who have power—physical, political, financial, ideological.

And there isn’t a damn thing fair about who has power in the U.S.—or who does not.

And while the U.S. has mostly eradicated child labor through laws, we are still confronted with Tamir Rice—a boy, a child shot and killed by a police officer sworn to protect and serve.

Tamir Rice was a child.

For the most part, those people with power don’t give a real damn about Rice’s tragic story. There is some passing rhetoric, but there is no action to prove otherwise.

Philando Castile lies before us now. His tragic story also means almost nothing to those with power, but the lessons are dark and powerful:

“What Mr. Castile symbolizes for a lot of us working in public defense is that driving offenses are typically just crimes of poverty,” says Erik Sandvick, a public defender in Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul and its suburbs….

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University and the author of Crook County, which documents the problems in the criminal justice system of Chicago, said Castile was the “classic case” of what criminologists have called “net widening,” or the move of local authorities to criminalize more and more aspects of regular life.

“It is in particular a way that people of color and the poor are victimized on a daily basis,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Rice and Castile were criminalized—rendered by the mere facts of race and class.

Being black or brown, poor, or female are burdens from which people cannot take a vacation. Because of systemic racism, classism, and sexism, the condition of scarcity “leaves citizens with no good choices — having to pick, for instance, whether to pay a fine or pay for car insurance,” as Castile represents.

Interpreting Tamir Rice as older than his age and violent, dangerous was nested in the police officer—not Rice.

That officer was an agent of systemic racism that justifies excessive use of force, racial profiling, and a whole host of criminalizing practices by the state.

From school-based discipline polices to zero tolerance, we have ample evidence that formal schooling creates criminals in the same ways policing creates criminals in some neighborhoods (read poor and black, brown).

But as we ignore the tragic stories and lessons of Rice and Castile—among so many others—we also ignore who controls the game.

One day, marijuana possession and sales are crimes, and then, the next, marijuana possession and sales are good ol’ business. In the first case, criminalizing disproportionately black and poor people, and in the second case, making monied white folk wealthier.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about using or selling marijuana; only who controls the right and wrong matters.

Racism targeting blacks in the U.S. suggests the problems lie in blacks themselves. Classism in the U.S. blames laziness among the poor for poverty. Sexism deems women inferior to men and the cause of their own sexual abuse.

All of this, however, is as obvious as the opening questions.

Brock Turner—privileged, white, and drunk—and Judge Aaron Persky—white, male, and drunk on privilege—are the problems to be addressed.

The even uglier reality is that the power to admit these problems of white privilege and to do something about it rests in people just like Turner and Persky.

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River

How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.

Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.

As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.

Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.

So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?

The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:

Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.

And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.

That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.

Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.

One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:

Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?

The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.

You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.

And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.

The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?

The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.

Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”

That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.

And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.

Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.

Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.

Dear EWA:

Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.

Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.

Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.

Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.

Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.

Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.

I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.

As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.

We both can and should do better.

Even Technocrats with Good Intentions Sustain Classroom Colonialism

Kassie Benjamin offers a powerful confession at Jose Vilson’s blog. Benjamin—like many educators including myself—became an educator firmly holding to the belief that education is the great equalizer, the lever that changes people’s lives and society for the better.

However, Benjamin explains: “Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.”

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin names the assimilation Benjamin confronts as “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)

Emdin points a finger at urban “no excuses” charter schools as contemporary versions of traditional schooling created to “fix” Native Americans. For example, Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

But we should also look at a number of policies that are thinly veiled mechanisms for assimilation/colonialism.

Just as one example, tracking remains a robust practice in U.S. education, I believe, because it appears to help the so-called top students (mostly white and relatively affluent) even though a great deal of evidence shows tracking hurts the so-called struggling students (mostly black/brown and impoverished).

Further, like Benjamin and Emdin, Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.”

Policy makers, administrators, and teachers promoting and implementing practices, then, who are in effect perpetuating classroom colonialism may often have good intentions.

Charlotte Danielson provides us here an ironic and important model as she confronts teacher evaluation:

The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.

Danielson, of course, continues to criticize the recent push for extended accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing into how we evaluate, retain, and pay teachers (popularly known as VAM, for using “value added methods”).

The irony comes as Danielson slips into what I believe is the central problem driving much of the classroom colonialism challenged by Benjamin, Emdin, Samudzi, and Paul Gorski: Danielson’s alternative to the failed good intentions of teacher evaluation is just another technocratic version of teacher evaluation.

Colonialism in traditional schooling survives because education is a reflection of our society. Schools will never be transformative at the social level until formal education is unlike our inequitable social structures—until formal schooling serves our vulnerable students’ needs first by honoring them as fully human instead of framing them through deficit lenses.

School discipline begins and reflects the racially inequitable mass incarceration of the wider society. Tracking reflects and perpetuates our class stratifications.

Nearly every aspect of school policy and practice is a mechanism for assimilation—not transformation.

Education and education reform are trapped in a technocratic vision that can only replicate our society.

Education reform and the commodification of education are bound by the mantra “My technocratic vision is better than your technocratic vision.”

It isn’t about standards, but the new and better standards.

It isn’t about high-stakes testing, but the new and better high-stakes tests.

And not once, not once, has the promise of the new been realized in any ways that serve impoverished students, black/brown students, or English language learners.

However, nearly always, the policies and practices in place have served well (or at least not impeded) the whitest and wealthiest.

Emdin invokes the metaphor of invisibility throughout his dismantling of “white pedagogy” and call for “reality pedagogy.” But I am drawn to my English teacher and existential roots by the concluding image of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: the guillotine.

Camus’s main character Meursault describes that “the guillotine looked like such a precision instrument, perfect and gleaming….[T]he machine destroyed everything: you were killed discretely , with a little shame and with great precision” (p. 112).

The efficiency of the technocratic mind, the guillotine, that served the interests of the ruling elites at the expense of anyone else who did not conform, assimilate.

The technocrats, even with good intentions, maintain a classroom colonialism that honors “assimilate or die.”

 

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

The Ugly “Good Teacher” Discussion Few Are Confronting

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Matthew 25:40

The gold standard, I think, for thinking about education reform and more narrow concerns such as teacher quality is the complex and confrontational approach of Lisa Delpit, who anchors her perspective with how we teach and treat “other people’s children”—black and brown children, impoverished children.

And from that perspective we have the ugly “good teacher” discussion few are willing to confront: Vulnerable populations of children and their families are where and how we experiment with education, where and how we adopt policies and practices no affluent and white families would tolerate for their children: Teach For America, “no excuses,” zero tolerance.

High-poverty and majority-minority schools are burdened not just with social inequity hurdles but also with systemic and often unspoken practices that include having incredibly high teacher turn over because these “problem” schools are entry points for teachers to find “better” jobs (see Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect).

Just as insidious is the systemic and often unspoken practice in all schools that “low-level” classes of students are assigned new teachers, who must endure those populations of students until they can have the “good” classes within that school.

These ugly practices grounded in racism and classism are at the root of why advocates for education reform who focus on race and class remain mostly dissatisfied with both sides of the mainstream education reform debate.

The edu-reformers are all-in on race and class tone-deaf practices—TFA, “no excuses,” zero tolerance—but the advocates for public education and progressive reform have failed to admit how the traditional public school system has historically failed “other people’s children” through the wink-wink-nod-nod approach to assigning teachers.

Too often, teachers are complicit in and fail to confront the system that marginalizes vulnerable populations of students as collateral damage of teacher advancement.

During my 18 years of public school teaching, even among teachers, the common sense attitude was that “good” teachers were assigned Advanced Placement, and teaching “low-level” classes was a negative commentary on the teacher’s ability. As department chair, I worked to assign each teacher a couple classes she/he requested, and then tried to balance every teacher’s load with a range of class levels and types.

While I was working on my dissertation, writing a biography of educator Lou LaBrant, I was profoundly struck by a point of irritation she expressed in her memoir. LaBrant noted that she had her best teachers in her doctoral program, at the end of her formal education, but that progression, she believed, is backward in that children need their best teachers in the beginning of formal education, not the end.

Our vulnerable populations of students must be served first in our public school system: assigned experienced and qualified teachers, placed in classes with low teacher/student ratios, guaranteed access to the most challenging courses and curriculums, and promised safe, diverse schools with equitable, supportive disciplinary practices.

Everything else is a distraction from what truly matters.

Resisting Good/Bad Teacher/Police Frame and Confronting Systemic Flaws in Education, Law Enforcement

[Expanded and revised at Alternet: A Few Bad Actors? A Former Teacher on Classroom Cops]

The Spring Valley High controversy created by the excessive force used by a police officer on campus represents the intersection of the wider and growing public debates about so-called bad teachers and bad police.

Let me clarify first that I was a public school teacher for 18 years, and I have family members and good friends who are or were police officers. Speaking about the fields of teaching and law enforcement, I would typically be supportive of the individual people who choose these professions that are primarily about serving the public good. Of course, I have dear friends and family members I also consider to be wonderful people, good people who are also outstanding in their professions as teachers and police officers.

I have also heard these good people say and watched them do things that are detrimental to children and adults, things steeped in racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism.

As a teacher (coach and parents, also), I often made mistakes, ones that were detrimental to students and teens. I also came home from teaching on more than one instance with students’ blood splattered on my clothes after breaking up fights. Once, I stood face-to-face with a student of mine who had come on campus with a shotgun planning to shoot a female with whom he had developed an unhealthy fascination.

I am not under the delusion that teachers and police officers must be perfect, and I am well aware that both professions are sometimes (teaching) and often (law enforcement) extremely dangerous for the professionals who are not financially compensated in ways that match their responsibility or the dangers they encounter.

As well, I have almost no tolerance for the political and public demonizing of bad teachers and bad police officers—the finger-pointing at manufactured scapegoats similar to the Reagan era “welfare queen,” which we know was an ugly, racist tactic that misrepresented welfare recipients; the finger-pointing at black-on-black crime that willfully ignores that white-on-white crime is essentially at the same rate (virtually all crime is within race, that is).

Therefore, we are in a difficult position as a society, one that requires all of us to consider the black girl being slammed to the classroom floor against the shooting and killing of Tamir Rice.

To step back from “she should have just done as she was told,” to refrain from blaming the victim.

In fact, we need to refrain from pointing fingers at individuals because many teacher and police officer errors in judgment and tragic behaviors are the result of the larger systemic flaws in our society and the institutions of formal education and criminal justice.

Responding to the incident at Spring Valley High, Camika Royal, a professor of urban education at Loyola University in Maryland, explained:

“Instead of making her cell phone and/or her behavior the focus of his class, he could have told her he would deal with her after class,” Royal wrote in an email to TakePart. “Because of his choice not to let it go, to contact the administrator instead, he kept students from learning, and he disrupted the learning environment.”

In the classroom, wrote Royal, “power struggles with students rarely end well.”

It appears the student put away her phone, but didn’t want to hand it over. This was a situation escalated by the adults in authority. The infraction could easily have been addressed after class.

While far more tragic, Tamir Rice’s life also was extinguished because the officer with authority escalated the situation, over-reacted.

I want to stress that such over-reactions must not be discounted or trivialized as individual behaviors, but must be recognized as the result of normalized expectations, cultural tolerance of how some people, including children, can and should be treated.

As I have examined before, why were public discussions about domestic abuse of women prompted by NFL high-profile incidences absent support for hitting women, but the concurrent debates about hitting children all included pro-spanking arguments?

Because of a lingering normalized acceptance of hitting children that is entirely refuted by research and the medical profession.

Teachers and police officers (including black teachers and police officers) are themselves agents of pervasive systemic biases that continue to disproportionately and negatively impact people and children of color: black children are perceived as being older than their biological ages, black children are punished in school while white children are prescribed medications or provided counseling, black communities are targeted more often by law enforcement, blacks are charged and convicted at higher rates than whites for the same infractions, and blacks and whites use recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are significantly more likely to be punished for that use.

Just as there is no safe or positive amount of corporal punishment for children—and just as the evidence shows that corporal punishment makes children aggressive and violent adults—the research is powerful that police in the hallways and zero tolerance policies in schools both disproportionately target majority-minority schools and criminalize students.

Yes, we must take care to address individual cases such as the one at Spring Valley High, but if we focus all of our energy on who to blame and if or how we should punish the police officer, we are likely to allow the larger forces to exist that will insure we will continue to face these avoidable situations again and again.

The best day in my teaching career was when I learned to de-escalate tension between me and a student. That day I began creating a classroom in which we all could avoid conflict and disruptions. Most of that change was mine to recognize and to manage—not the teens who were in my care.

The teen at Spring Valley High should never have been slammed to the floor, and Tamir Rice should be alive. Just as teachers and police officers need not be perfect, neither of these young people should have to be perfect to avoid violence and death at the hands of people charged to protect and serve them.

The first step to a solution is admitting the problem: Education and law enforcement in the U.S. are both poisoned by the facts of racism remaining in our culture. Denying that fact is embracing that racism.

Teachers and police officers need not be perfect, but teaching and law enforcement must be better, and we must make that happen immediately.

See Also

Rejecting Police in the Hallways: A Reader

All the White Responses (and the Game Is Rigged)

Why Do the Privileged View Equity as “Hard Work”?

Let’s start with this: Privileged people in the U.S. embrace what amounts to a lie—that success is mostly the result of effort, notably that education is the key to success.

However, the evidence is overwhelming that being born wealthy trumps effort (including educational attainment) by people born into poverty and especially by black and brown people regardless of socioeconomic status.

White, wealth, and male privilege remains the most powerful combination in the U.S.

Let’s also note that formal education, instead of eradicating inequity, often works to reflect and even expand the equity gap for impoverished, black, and brown children [1]. And “other people’s children” experience much harsher disciplinary policies in those schools, such as zero tolerance, that reflect and perpetuate race and class inequity as well.

And it may be that the root of this disturbing gap between what the privileged claim and the reality of being born and living in the U.S. is that those in power argue that taking action for equity is “hard work,” and thus themselves lack the grit or growth mindset (qualities being used—projected onto as deficits—to further demonize poor, black, and brown children) to actually do what is necessary to close the equity gap.

For example, although mind-numbingly late, some are beginning to recognize the racially inequitable discriminatory practices among many so-called “no excuses” charter schools, such as Success Academy. Yet, when those practices are confronted, we read these caveats:

The challenge posed to Success Academy and similar charter schools by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on student discipline is serious. To be in conformance with civil rights law, these schools will need to make radical reforms to their “no excuses” school culture and practices. Now that Moskowitz has laid down the gauntlet on this issue, many eyes will be on the Obama administration for its response. Changing policies, practices and cultures to make schools into safe and welcoming places that do not resort to the excessive and discriminatory use of suspensions and expulsions is hard, challenging work.

Ending discriminatory practices that disproportionately impact black and brown children living in poverty is “hard, challenging work”? Really?

In my home state of South Carolina, we discover, that despite decades of gross negligence of high-poverty, majority-black public schools in pockets mostly throughout the lower part of the state, the response is much the same:

It is difficult to know how to do that — although it would be much less difficult if we stopped worrying about turf protection and job protections and making sure the right people get lucrative contracts and pursuing our ideological goals.

It is difficult to get our legislators and our governor to ignore those distractions. But it is their job to do that….

The sad thing is that as difficult as it will be for our leaders to develop a plan and our teachers to implement it, the hardest part could be convincing ourselves that it’s worth doing.

In case we missed it, educational equity for all children in SC (read “poor,” read “black”) is “difficult.” Again, really?

The racist and classist stereotyping at the end of privileged finger-pointing is disgusting—calls for some children simply to work harder, blaming impoverished parents for not caring about education or their children, and making cavalier and rash arguments about either the great failure of schools and teachers or idealistic promises about schools and teachers.

No, it is neither hard nor difficult to do the right thing. It is simply that those with privilege in the U.S. do not care about equity, do not care about marginalized people or children. While the words say “hard” and “difficult,” the actions speak much louder: We do not care.

“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation,” James Baldwin warned at mid-twentieth century. “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

Let’s end with this: The challenge is not for the poor, not for black and brown people; the challenge is for those who have the power to change things but remain impotent because that challenge is “hard,” that challenge is “difficult.”

[1] Poor, black, and brown children disproportionately are subjected to larger class sizes, un-/under-certified teachers, underfunded schools, and reduced curriculums (test prep).

Proposal: Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

Below is a draft proposal for an edited volume. I am seeking possible co-editor(s) as well as potential contributors. Please contact me at paul.thomas@furman.edu if you are interested in either co-editing or contributing. Once I have interest and a revised proposal, I will seek a publisher and then post a formal call for chapter proposals.

Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

P.L. Thomas, editor

Publisher: TBD

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison was soon embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, but he also created tensions among those identifying with left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movements—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations—and the more recent controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon MartinJordan Davis, and Michael Brown as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being mis-seen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being mis-seen as soon as they enter school or walk the streets. In his 1966 “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin confronted the African American experience for young men—a confrontation that echoes across the U.S. today:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

In these historical and contemporary contexts, this volume seeks to gather a wide range of voices addressing the following:

  • Racial inequity in formal education disproportionately impacting African American males—expulsion and suspension, teacher quality access, course access.
  • African American males and the allure of sports as a “way out.”
  • Mass incarceration and the African American male.
  • Additional?

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1966, July 11). A report from occupied territory. The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/159618/report-occupied-territory

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: Library of America.

Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. (2013, January). A summary of new research. Closing the school discipline gap: Research to policy. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/events/2013/summary-of-new-research-closing-the-school-discipline-gap-research-to-policy/

Christensen, L. (2011/2012 Winter). The classroom-to-prison pipeline. Rethinking Schools, 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/restrict.asp?path=archive/26_02/26_02_christensen.shtml

Criminalizing children at school. (2013, April 18). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/criminalizing-children-at-school.html

Deleuze, G. (1992, Winter). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, pp. 3-7. Retrieved from https://files.nyu.edu/dnm232/public/deleuze_postcript.pdf

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Foucault, M. (1995). III. Discipline. 3. Panopticism. Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A Sheridan. Vintage, 2nd ed. Retrieved fromhttp://foucault.info/documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center. Retrieved from http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/education/NationalPreKExpulsionPaper.pdf

Jones, S., & Maurer, M. (2013, April 29). Ronald Reagan made the war on drugs a race to incarceration. Truthout. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16065-ronald-reagan-made-the-war-on-drugs-a-race-to-incarcerate

Kaba, M., & Edwards, F. (2012, January). Policing Chicago public schools: A gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. Project NIA. Retrieved fromhttp://policeinschools.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/policing-chicago-public-schools-final2.pdf

Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students face more discipline, data suggests. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/schools-without-diversity

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/TQReportJune2006.pdf

Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenber, E. (2012, September). Southern slippage: Growing school segregation in the most desegregated region of the country. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/southern-slippage-growing-school-segregation-in-the-most-desegregated-region-of-the-country/hawley-MLK-South-2012.pdf

Thomas, P. L. (2014). Invisible young men: African American males, academics, and athletics English Journal, 104(1), 75-78.

Wagner, P. (2012, August 28). Incarceration if not an equal opportunity punishment. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/articles/notequal.html

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.