The school year has its own rhythm to it. Some weeks move in melodic, harmonious verse and some in staccato. Being a teacher can often feel like leading an orchestra without sheet music. Or rather sheet music where the notes change as you play. But to be successful you have to improvise. With all the demands and rapidly shifting responsibilities, you must keep time and measure. Especially in January and June, as this is when the performance truly begins. It is testing season in most high school around the country. The rehearsals, mock test and drills, have prepared your students to play at their best. The stakes are high and your job is on the line. It is a tense time indeed. The pressure is on for you and your students to meet the standards as defined by the policymakers who at times prefer to hear the same song over and over again.
This. A photo of a mother and daughter celebrating the day after the historic Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, successfully challenged the practice of segregation in public education. The NAACP led by Thurgood Marshall argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal due to the poor quality of the facilities, instruction, and resources. Marshall also enlisted the help of psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark. The decision allowed African American students to enter any school regardless of race. On the Education Policy Cafe podcast , we discussed how this case led to a wave of legislation such as the Voting Right Act.
On Monday, the Daily News front page listed names of young black men who were killed by men unjustly acquitted by the legal system. This image of the empty hoody has been a symbol of black male criminality; an object of fear and suspension. At protest in NYC, LA and other urban centers supporters of Martin donned “the hoodie” as a way to show solidarity. In many schools, especially charter and some public school with dress codes, students are banned from wearing hoods. I recall the prep school I attended also disallowing this particular article of clothing. Thus when I went to college, the hoodie became my new uniform. I was never aware of how I was perceived. Discrimination was always a part of my experience moving through some unfriendly territories, but I just assumed that some folks just had a problem with “otherness.” As an african american female, I was never pulled over or harassed by the police. I was however greeted with suspicion in clothing stores and sometimes walking off campus in Northampton, MA. So I can’t say I can fully understand the intricacies of their pain as eloquently expressed by Questlove. But I weep for them. I know what it feels like to be treated like a “problem,” but not a criminal.
“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as manywhite poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.
“The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportuniti es, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.
“While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.
“At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income…. We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
I recently visited the Martin Luther King Historical Site in Atlanta. For the past week on the EPC radio show I read and dissected selected text from forward thinking thought leaders like Dr. King, James Baldwin, Horace Mann, and John Dewey in search for fresh ideas for education reform. Instead of reinventing the wheel as #edreformers tend to do policy leaders should dig in the historical crates to find inspiration. For example, this quote comes from Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) where he prescribed remedies for systematic inequities. He made connections between economics, class, race, and education. He fought for policies like a universal living wage which could contribute to long term educational gains for the poor and disenfranchised. He understood that reform didn’t stand a chance if families, parents and caregivers were submerged below the poverty line.
This is James Baldwin up close. One of the most widely read African-American authors from the 20th century. His books like Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Fire Next Time and Another Country are well-known literary treasures. I recently discovered a speech written by Baldwin to teachers. It is rich and relevant, especially in light of this weeks quintessentially American drama: The George Zimmerman trial. This post has been updated to include excerpts from the speech, “A Talk to Teachers” delivered by Baldwin in 1963. I reference this text during this weeks Education Policy Cafe radio show.
James Baldwin on the complicated condition of the “black” child in the American education system:
..any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic. On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war. He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.” He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured. He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people. If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.
All this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does. As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled. But children are very different. Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions. They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon. But a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it, is aware that there is a reason why his mother works so hard, why his father is always on edge. He is aware that there is some reason why, if he sits down in the front of the bus, his father or mother slaps him and drags him to the back of the bus. He is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him. And it isn’t long – in fact it begins when he is in school – before he discovers the shape of his oppression.
Baldwin captures the problematic nature of the American education system in the post Brown versus Board of Education era. With increased access to education, other challenges arise like hegemonic curriculum that transmits subservience and damages the self-image of the child. This was written over forty years ago however I know of students, parents and educators who could give credence to Baldwin’s assessment and observations.
Education policymakers and leaders love “reform.” It seems like every year new buzz words emerge: multiple intelligences, differientation, outcome based education, whole language, whole child, and a whole lotta confusion. On last week’s radio show we discussed the current reform initiatives championed by the Obama Administration. Our focus was the impact of Race to the Top on states including their implementation of current reform initatives: common core, teacher evaluation and charter schools.
Part of my motivation for launching Education Policy Cafe emerged from frustration with how reforms were often “rolled out” (the term favored by the NYC Department of Education) during my time working in schools as an educator. Hearing the term during professional development workshop almost became a harbinger of doom. I recognize that my new role as a researcher and writer should keep me from using such hyperbole, however I would be lying if I said I welcomed the new ideas “coming down the pike.” I would sit in my classroom filled with students, some over age, some with mild reading disabilities, many with emotional and behavorial problems and wondered if the policymakers in Tweed remembered what it felt like to teach everyday. My students were high needs but it seemed at time the adults were as well. Compliance, deadlines, reviews and evaluations formed the four wall Citadel I inhabited. How can an educator inspire and motivate in such a space?
Alas, I am an idealist and a dreamer. I can’t really help it.. it’s in my DNA. So I did what people like me tend to do: Break out and make something new. In NYC there are signs that say “if you see something, say something.” Well everyday I saw what policy gone awry looks like from the front lines. I feel a moral responsibility to myself, my former students and concerned citizens to make an impact on education in a real substantial way.
To be continued..
A woman sits in front of Tweed Chambers in New York City in support of Resolution 1281
Policy is not an exciting topic for most. It tends to be a conversation that only includes the privileged few: Politicians, lawmakers, and academics while leaving citizens, students, parents and educators left to deal with the results.
Education Policy Cafe is blog, resource hub, curated feed dedicated to providing critical information to the true stakeholders in the education debate.
This blog will evolve and launch into a full website and serve as a go-to site for EDpolicy advocates, educators, and students. Our mission is make policy accessible, relevant, and even well…fun! With the inclusion of diverse perspectives, a real dialogue can emerge and real solutions discovered.
Just a little about me: A former teacher, future academic, part time artist, full time hopemonger. I started EPC after five years of working hard and seeing EDpolicy first hand in the public schools of New York City. I now live in Atlanta, Ga working with low income adult education students and studying to become a EDpolicy researcher. I also host a call-in radio show where we talk about education, policy, politics and other hip stuff. I hope to keep you coming back with fresh, new content.
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