Education · Politics

No, Your Kids’ School Can’t Be “Neutral”

You can demand that your local public school keep politics out of the classroom. You can demand that they be race-neutral, that they discipline every child the same way, that they show equal respect for everyone’s views. But they can’t agree to that. They’ve seen too much. They know what “neutral” really looks like.

They know that when they are race-neutral, white students consistently out-perform their black and Latino/a peers on academic measures.

They know that when they are language-neutral, only English counts.

They know that when they are income-neutral, their students get the education their parents can buy.

They know that when they are religion-neutral, Christianity sits front-and-center while other faiths are pushed to the side.

They know that when they are gender-neutral, there are only two options, and any student who does not fit is excluded at best and tormented at worst.

They know. They’ve seen it.

Your kids’ school staff has seen a parent write a $200,000 check to his child’s school to buy an all-weather track, while the school 10 minutes down the road cancels track practice because the track can’t be safely maintained.

They’ve seen black kids give up on school because their behaviors, dress, and interaction patterns didn’t fit “classroom expectations” and they were labeled as bad kids.

They’ve seen wealthy white parents storm the district office, attorney in tow, and walk out with their child’s suspension cleared.

They have listened to white parents demand “accelerated” classes and programs for their “advanced” children, and they have responded, even though they know those programs will exclude children who are just as capable but have been socialized differently.

They’ve watched students still developing English, or who speak a variety of English outside the “standard,” sit quietly in class, deferring to their classmates, believing their ideas have less value because their language doesn’t match.

They’ve seen white kids spend their Saturdays in $1200 SAT prep workshops and in meetings with their $5000-a-year college coaches, having their applications carefully tailored to ensure they get into the schools of their choice.

They’ve watched teacher presentations and classroom discussions filled with examples of trips to the Grand Canyon, chocolate chip cookie baking, Monopoly games, and Thanksgiving family dinners -examples that mean nothing to children who have not lived the typical white, middle-class experience and who are left out of those discussions altogether.

They’ve seen gender-nonconforming kids meticulously plan their school days so they could use the bathroom without being mocked.

They’ve seen “neutral” selection of literature and social science materials result in a list of books by white men, with tellings of history that ignore the experiences and contributions of most of the world.

They’ve seen celebrations of gay pride countered with “Day of Truth” demonstrations, with students asserting their “religious freedom” in shirts bearing the message, “Homosexuality is a sin.”

They’ve heard girls called sluts, gay students called fags, students with disabilities called retards. They’ve heard white students ignorantly deride Islam, declare that everyone should speak English in public places, and proclaim immigration bad for the country. They’ve cringed because these comments are made with girls, gay students, students with disabilities, Muslim students, multilingual students, and immigrant students sitting right there in the room.

That’s neutrality.

Public educators know that there are structures and systems and ideologies built deeply into our society that privilege certain people and groups over others. They know that who achieves in school has FAR more to do with race, class, language background, and family income than with talent and work ethic. They know that the black kids who are in the office all the time, the kids still learning English, the kids living in cars, and the kids desperately trying to figure out which socially constructed category they fit into, are just as smart, just as talented, just as passionate and driven as the white kids who occupy the front row of their AP classes with their hands confidently in the air. They know that there is no place in the typical structures and practices of school for those students’ talents and passions to be valued.

Public educators know kids don’t start on a level playing field, and they know the playing field never levels unless they take deliberate steps to level it in school. They know that “neutral” maintains the system as it is, with all its inequality. They know that if they don’t actively work to resist and counter those inequalities, they are complicit in maintaining them. And they can’t be.

Because for public educators, all those kids who are positioned to fail have names too, just like the ones positioned to succeed. They have personalities. They’re funny and sensitive. They have stories and gifts and siblings they love. They matter, and they’re worth fighting for.

So you can demand that public schools be neutral, but they can’t agree to that. Neutral isn’t neutral. And they know it.





Education · Politics

I Know. I Thought Racism “Worked Both Ways” Too. It Doesn’t.

I graduated with my teaching credential in December, 1994 -two years after the L.A. riots and just weeks before the start of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Race was front and center in this country when I started my career. But having grown up in a predominantly white community, I had little first-hand experience with it until after college. I believed that racism was largely a thing of the past, with the exception of a deviant few.  I was sure that Rodney King must have been impossible to control, that the officers wouldn’t have beaten him unnecessarily, that the acquittal proved that out, and that any connection to race was manufactured, divisive, and unproductive. I trusted those in authority (without noticing how many of them were white), and I trusted the system.

In my student teaching and first year in the classroom, a few patterns jumped out at me. One was the stark racial divide between high-track and low-track classes. Another was the impressive ability of my students of color to explain race-related dynamics in contrast to my white students’ inability to do so. It was apparent to me early on that my students were experiencing school differently, but I never thoroughly made sense of that or tried to engage with issues of race as part of my work. I came to think about equity more broadly, and more vaguely.

At the school where I spent most of my career, we took what amounted to a colorblind approach. We knew there were racial disparities in achievement, enrollment in advanced coursework, and discipline, but we sought to address those disparities by treating all of our students equally. We focused on building an inclusive school community, and we opened access to advanced curricular pathways in hopes of increasing numbers of underrepresented students in these courses. We treated culture superficially, celebrating “diversity” generally but never really seeking to understand the diverse values and day-to-day practices that characterized our students’ lives. We took our academic and behavioral standards for granted; we strove to ensure that every student mastered them but never called the standards themselves into question as racially and culturally biased.

As an assistant principal, I once had an African American student in my office who had interfered with an arrest in our parking lot after school. As I wrote up her suspension papers, she stood across from my desk and screamed at me that the school was racist. I rolled my eyes and assured her that a white student who had engaged in the same behavior would be facing the same consequence. But of course that statement was ridiculous. No white student would have felt the outrage that she felt on seeing her black friend pushed to the ground by a white police officer on her school campus. Comparing her to a white student in the same situation was absurd because white students and students of color don’t find themselves in the same situations on school campuses or in their communities. Despite what we wanted to believe, there was no “treating students equally” because they were experiencing school, and the world, very differently.

Many readings, presentations, and conversations have helped me to shift my perspective, but the one that still stands out to me is Gloria Ladson-Billings’ From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Ladson-Billings argues that the disparity in academic achievement between white students and students of color is not just a gap but the result of a long-accumulated debt. For generations, our society has denied access to education to minority populations, first by barring them from attending school at all, later by relegating them to separate schools, and into the present by failing to ensure that schools that serve large minority populations have the same resources as schools that serve primarily white students. What we see now when we look at achievement data can only be understood by looking at our country’s history of racism and injustice.

The first time I read Ladson-Billings’ piece, I thought about my father’s lectures about credit card payments -specifically the evils of the “minimum payment.” I learned at 18 that consistently paying the minimum payment would keep me decidedly in debt, even if I curtailed my spending. It would satisfy the bank for the month, but it would do little to put my relationship with the bank back in balance. To do that, I would need to look past the minimum payment line to the “total balance” line. I would need to put forth extra effort to make a dent in that number.

I found this an incredibly helpful metaphor for thinking about race and equity. Deciding to see everyone as equal is like making a minimum payment. It’s better than what we used to do, but it won’t address the very large debt we’ve accumulated over hundreds of years. To make a dent in that debt will require more intensive intervention. We are out of balance right now. White people in this country hold more power than people of color. White people occupy the bulk of high-level leadership positions and hold most of the wealth. White, middle class culture and values are so dominant that they’re invisible until they’re challenged. We can’t claim to be addressing racism until we begin actively working to establish balance.

But this won’t be entirely painless for white people. Repaying a debt requires giving up assets. And balancing power requires the people with too much to relinquish some of it. When we hear people cry, “Black lives matter” and we respond, “All lives matter,” we’re maintaining imbalance. Black lives have historically mattered less. We might need to attend to them specifically in order to establish balance. Affirmative action corrects an imbalance. Education has historically been less accessible to people of color. We might need to prioritize their access to college to establish balance. It’s not “reverse racism.” It’s countering of racism. It’s repaying of a debt.

Individual people can harbor prejudice, but systemic racism requires power. Right now, in our society, white people hold power. We are not victims of racism; we are responsible for it. If we start to feel our power threatened, it doesn’t mean we’re oppressed; it might mean we’re moving in the right direction.





“Bittersweet and Strange, Finding You Can Change, Learning You Were Wrong”

I grew up a conservative Christian in a white, middle-class community. As a general rule, this context worked well for me. My parents trained me from birth to do all the things that would position me as a “good student” in school. I learned to read fluently and with expression, I took great pride in producing error-free writing, and I NEVER had my name on the board. I was a well-bred churchgoer as well. I won prizes for memorizing the most Bible verses in Sunday School, I sang hymns in the shower, and I cast scolding looks at my teenage peers for giggling during talks at youth group. My family was often compared to the Cleavers, and while our family life was not nearly so neat, we certainly had all the Cleaver trappings -two parents, a stay-at-home mother, nightly dinners together, a wood-paneled station wagon with a dog in the back.

I also had deep-seated insecurities. I read slowly and couldn’t keep up with my peers in advanced classes, and I went to lengths to hide it. I was clumsy and socially awkward, and I could never figure out how other kids knew what to wear or what music to listen to. I chose to avoid homework rather than face the possibility of not understanding it, so I spend middle and high school lying, copying, and living in fear of being caught. I felt at home at church but also always felt on the outside of my peer group. I knew all the rules but was never fully included.

When I look back now and reflect on how I became an arrogant, critical, judgmental adult, I come back not to my successes but to my insecurities. I grew up knowing I was a fraud and desperately trying to hide it, so I built my identity around my achievements. I may not have been a contributing member of a Christian community, but I knew the doctrine and followed the rules. I became an English teacher. I found that I was fairly successful at teaching students to read, think, and write the way I had learned to read, think, and write. For all that I had never figured out, I had developed a strong grasp of English -the structure, the convention, and the power of language. As incompetent as I grew up feeling, I had completed college and secured a place in middle-class life as an independent adult. I believed my students could too, assumed they should want to, and looked to my own knowledge and experience as resources to share with them.

I believed that language and literacy were the keys to educational success -because they had been mine. And I knew that I held those keys. That belief, and my own experience, left no room for valuing of multilingualism or varieties of English other than the “standard.” I knew that my mother’s reading to me as a child had given me an edge, so I believed every parent should do the same. The students whose experiences had been different were, in my conception of language and literacy achievement, behind. And rather than question why my own set of values was so rigid, or exploring how this diversity of experiences might deepen and enrich the discourse of my classroom, I set about the work of catching those students up.

My conservative Christian values played into the educator I became as well. I accepted that single parents, or even same-sex parents, could raise successful children, but I never accepted that any family configuration was equal to the “traditional” nuclear family. I viewed students from other family backgrounds as disadvantaged, which undoubtedly shaped my expectations of them. I attributed my own success as an adult -as I defined it- to the code my family and community had lived by. And again, rather than question the power dynamics that make Christianity so advantageous in our society, I took for granted the rightness of the code.

People close to me believe that leaving my job and coming back to school changed me. And of course it has, but my classes, professors, and classmates also gave me words to voice and explain the discomfort I was already feeling in my job. As steeped as I was in my own beliefs and practices as a teacher and administrator, I knew, as many educators know, that what I was doing wasn’t working. For all our talk of equity and access, the same groups of students continued to come out ahead, and the schools in the same communities continued to be featured in the newspaper. I thought much more about language than I thought about race and class, but of course they are closely linked, and my own beliefs and values and whatever limited “success” I attained had as much to do with the fact that I was white and middle class as the fact that I grew up a conservative Christian and spoke a valued variety of English. Those things aren’t unrelated.

I have always cared deeply about equity, as most public educators do. I just didn’t see, until I stepped outside and began interacting with people who had either studied the world through different lenses or just lived different experiences, how the standards we choose to set as a society both reflect the values of the people in power and necessarily open up access to some and limit it for others.

I’m in the very early stages of understanding all of this. For now, it has made me obnoxious on Facebook but not particularly powerful in my ability to effect change at any level. I have much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be following the footsteps (and breathing the dust) of many, many people who have understood all of this for many, many years. And because I am both proud and deeply insecure, facing all that I didn’t know was initially painful. Believing that I had spend a 20-year career working toward equity only to learn that I had made countless decisions as a teacher and an administrator that in fact furthered inequity was hard. But it was only briefly hard. Then it was freeing, because then I could talk about it, because then it wasn’t just about me anymore, and because then I was empowered to question and challenge -and to begin working to avoid falling into the beliefs, assumptions and patterns that reinforce the status quo.

“Learning you were wrong,” as Disney reminds us, isn’t all bad. It opens up some pretty exciting doors.