The Voice of Communities of Color and the Polarized Ed Debate

It hit me during a union meeting I attended this spring. There was a discussion underway about the opt-out movement (which I completely understand, even empathize with, but don’t really get down with) and how supportive our local association should be of it. An elementary teacher stood up and asked about the implications of students opting-out on building wide scores. For those not in education, students who do not test are counted as a zeroes when calculating building scores, as demonstrated in this image from a release from OSPI today.

After her question, there was some murmuring in the room and then someone stood up, walked to the mic, and said something (very thoughtfully and passionately) that basically came down “it is worth the collateral damage to the school if it helps get rid of the toxic tests.”

It hit me again on Tuesday night when I attended the Tacoma Branch of the NAACP’s Education Committee meeting. There was an obvious and palpable frustration with what they perceive as the lack of progress in our city in academic achievement and they were strategizing about how to activate the community in upcoming school board races.

It hit me a third time this morning while reading an loooong Twitter thread sparked by this post from @RealTalkGwenS (Gwen’s bio: “I am a PARENT lobbyist advocating for the Constitutional rights of parents. I do not negotiate the safety, education and overall well being of children.”)

I encourage you to read the resulting thread. It’s very illuminating of where I am going next.

Communities of color and people in poverty are more open to and interested in “substantial change in current educational practices and policies**” within public education because they feel a disproportionate burden of the inequality within the system. I believe this is why within the black community particularly, there are higher levels of support for things like testing (which I’ve written about here, here and here), charter schools (which I am indifferent to) and vouchers (which I strongly oppose). These communities do not see the achievement gap as a statistic or a talking point--it is a reality that often condemns their children to adulthoods filled with chronic un or underemployment, minimum wage jobs, an austere lifestyle and often incarceration.

Conversely, the vast majority of the educational establishment: teachers, principals, professors, non-prof EDs, legislators, their staffers, etc, come from middle class white families and have emerged from a system that largely a. valued them on their own terms, and b. met their cultural needs and expectations. People within the ed establishment have emerged successfully from a system designed by people like them, to create more people like them and often times they are blind (willfully or otherwise) to the rampant inequality within the system. Therefore, they are often strongly, sometimes vociferously, opposed to “substantial change in current educational practices and policies”. You don’t have to agree with what you just read, but it is with that understanding that I ask you to consider the following:

Meetings and conferences about education are consistently some of the most white spaces in our society. There’s more diversity on a country music singer’s tour bus than there is at most rallies, conferences, and workshops that I attend as a teacher. The few exceptions to this that jump to mind are the following:

  • Meetings put on by organizations created by people of color: the (aforementioned) NAACP education committee and Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective on a the local level come to mind
  • Events catering to classified (secretaries, office professionals, etc.) rather than certificated (teachers) staff
  • The annual NWTSJ Conference, a social justice educational conference that migrates up and down the I-5 corridor each year, here in Cascadia
  • School board meetings here in Tacoma, where there is a core of very involved parents and advocates
  • Meetings about charter schools

I want to focus on that last bullet for a moment.

Last year, my local union encouraged members to go out and speak at a public meeting at the local library where the state charter committee was hearing presentations from the applicants to open the first round of charter schools here in Tacoma. I am a charter agnostic: Charter supporters exaggerate their successes and opponents exaggerate their shortcomings. I work in my neighborhood public school, and have for the last six years, by choice. For a civics teacher and general government nerd, it was amazing theater. I couldn’t help but notice the dichotomy in the room: On one hand we had a very angry, verbose group of educators making very pointed (and accurate in most cases) critiques of each of the charter applicants and more often charter schools overall. On the other hand, there was a room full of parents, mostly of color, looking for alternatives for their children. They were looking for an alternative to a system that I am a part of--a system that they felt was not meeting their needs or the needs of their students. It was a sort of out of body experience, but one I am having with increasing regularity.

Too often for my tastes the self-proclaimed champions of public-ed are actually champions for the status quo, a status quo that is not serving communities of color, but has served them (the champions) and people from their class, neighborhood, listservs very well. This is particularly true in conversations about student data, where people long for days of yore when, when the achievement gap (particularly the performance of black students) was obscured by the power aggregate data. As someone who went through the same school system in which I now work, I can attest that students in school now are graduating at higher rates, having taken more rigorous coursework and receiving more academic support on career and college planning and transition than they did before the current “reform era”. However, most of the credit for these improvements is a result of the work of largely anonymous, but ever present people in the community demanding change to the system--not a national reform agenda.

Conversely, the reformers try to impose their agendas, solutions and policies on communities they themselves haven’t and wouldn’t dare step foot in. In many cases the reformers are right about many of the problems in K-12, but communities don’t trust them or their pre-fabricated (one size fits all) solutions: standardization, reducing protections for teachers and ed tech quick fixes (techno-triumphalism).

I say all this because as an educator of color, one who is passionate about justice and improving outcomes for my community, the US (“public ed advocates”) vs THEM (“reformers”) dynamic is unhelpful (at best). It creates factions and is destructive of trust within the profession and causes the vast, vast, vast majority of educators stay on the sidelines. At least once a month (often more), I talk to amazing, highly regarded and thoughtful educators who “just can’t be bothered with the whole (ed policy) thing” because it is so polarized and toxic. But, if thoughtful, solutions oriented educators are discouraged from engaging in the ed space, what are we left with?

It’s the worst kind of negative feedback loop imaginable.

**I am intentionally not using the term “reform”, which has become a pretty specific and predictable brand.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia