Unless you are completely daft, you had to have specifically tuned out and turned off what was said by the U. S. Attorney General this week in regards to racism in America. It is not only alive and well, it is pretty much socially acceptable.
My own personal examples include:
(1) Sitting in a staff meeting, year 2004, with teachers and administrators to discuss what we as teachers were going to do this year to raise the test scores of our black and brown students. Each public school is required to have an “action plan” for how they will change instruction to raise test scores and this plan is scrutinized (or not) by other administrators only if test scores do not go upwards. I raised my hand and stated to the others in the room, ” I personally would feel more comfortable if we discussed what we would do for all our students who were not succeeding at the basic level rather than discuss students by melanin”. There were other teachers who supported what I was saying except the teacher support came from teachers with tenure. The other teachers could not/would not get involved as they did not have tenure and I just touched on the taboo subject. Of course I did not have tenure either and did not feel beholden to anyone in stating how I felt about racism. I raised the ire of the principal and suffice it to say, this was one of many times where I stood my ground, ultimately leading to no good within the district for having my own thoughts. This same principal is now the head of HR in another school district, and of course, the student population is mainly black and brown. I am not sure if this principal understood then or now the implication of their statements, I just know it taught me that racism is sanctioned in Northern California, in particular this public school/district – and I continue to be horrified. Let me also mention that the teaching friends I made at that school are still my close friends and support me in speaking the truth. These friends are brown, black, gay/lesbian, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They have told me it took a great deal of courage to say what I did that day and at other times when I risked my professional career (obtaining tenure) to say what needed to be said. This particular school district I refer to benefits from an annual teacher turnover rate of 40% + each year so there is always a fresh crew of teachers to not speak up. The school I taught at saw one principal and two different vice principals while I was there and over a five year period has had four principals and three vice principals on top of the teacher turn over so it is ripe for people to just go along with the game – and many do, sadly.
(2) Sitting in a meeting at a charter school where I taught and being explicitly told that each teacher was expected to sort through the following: which students were far below basic, below basic, proficient, above proficient in language arts and math. Once we ‘disaggregated’ the data (sorting students by race for the subcategories we needed to pass in spring testing – color, poverty, special needs, etc.), we then needed to determine which students we could ‘push over the line’ by specific content questions on the spring test, focusing most on our far below basic students.
For anyone who does not understand AYP (links below), students in far below basic and below basic are worth more when they cross the threshold of proficient in terms of point value change than students which are proficient or above, which provide little, if any substantive point growth on testing.
Of course I was partnered with the language arts teachers since I taught science (science was not on the test except for a baseline measure that particular year and did not make any practicable contribution to points so the subject did not need to be a focus, even if it would help students the following year….) and subsequently realized that I would be essentially teaching language arts and math (coded by principal as ‘cross curricular’) subjects which did make a difference on the points of the test. Two weeks from the date of that meeting, we had the data, by student, of how many questions in each subsection of the test (language arts and math) needed to be passed to raise our points. I felt as though I were doing chemistry calculations and determining exactly how many moles of various compounds needed to be put into the container for a reaction. Of course I jokingly said something such as what molarity/what molality do I need for the ‘chemistry’ I will be performing in my classroom this year and it was completely lost on the other teachers and principal (and if not lost on them, they took it to be snarky).
Would you believe that the students in far below basic and below basic had more melanin? The students who were proficient or above were light skinned? Should not be shocking as children with melanin are also subgrouped (race, poverty, special needs and schools must meet the subgroup points as well. Essentially, students who were proficient or above were on free float while all the other students were intensely (and I do mean intense) focused upon in every class, in every subject as monitored by practice multiple choice tests. Now, no one would state the proficient and above students were on free float as teachers are suppossed to provide ‘differentiated’ instruction (code for giving enrichment). I watched as students who had all the promise in the world were so turned off to school and testing that by the end of the year, we needed to have a rally to get ourselves wound up for testing. The self same students, which in other countries (generally third world) where people with more melanin live ,are inspired to learn and want to attend school, even in its most primitive form- and they are not measured by the test scores except to promote to the next level (which is on an individual student basis, not the school) or attend university. In America, no student below proficient wants to attend school as it is about the test score, not the student and it is not about fun – it is about intense laser focus on specific questions presented in a myriad of differnt ways each week to assure that the 75% ‘knowing the answer’ is partnered adequately with the 25% random chance of success in such a way that the school will improve in the spring on test scores.
Aside from the obvious of which these students were not being taught science or history http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/02/24/mass_delays_plan_to_require_history_for_diploma/ (yes, Mr. Holder you are correct, especially at charter schools which need to focus on the test scores), these students were not engaged in anything remotely fun, interesting or particularly engaging except at the lower spectrum of learning and whatever potential joy in learning could be found, was wiped away by the immutable question of “Is it on the test?”.
Now testing takes on a whole other flavor/meaning in the charter school system. Charter schools specifically have a mission to raise up disenfranchised (code for ‘color’) children. If you can aggregate enough of these students each year and have them get near or cross the proficient threshold, your test scores go up. Pretty easy math. At some point though the raw product (students of color) either runs out (parents and students leave the charter school, it is a school of choice to attend), or there is no place else for the scores to really show jumps in growth as you have gotten your populus to proficient and the point gain forward at that point is extremely difficult to extract. At this time, scores plateau or can drop. Suffice it to say, each time there is a new charter school, the first year of testing is a RESET button on the base of test scores. Within any given community, parents can move their students from school to school in the hopes some school will meet the needs of their student, meanwhile, even the slightest improvement in these students, raises test scores for the initial few years of a charter school. This is also one of the underlying reasons all schools, especially charter (they have a marketing department), do not show more than last years and current years scores in longitudinal comparison year overyear, following a group of students. Showing year over year growth is pretty simple within the first five years of any charter school as year one is the RESET and then each subsequent year, the scores go up incrementally. Showing/tracking a group of students year over year is rather difficult in a charter school when they have a high turnover of student population (and they do, they just don’t talk about it) and, it does not market well. When people do the research, they will see that many charter schools which are 3-5 years old have hit the plateau or downward test scores.
So, as one who followed through this list of information might realize, it appears on the outset that education in America, specifically at charter schools, has improved the lot in life of children of color. It would then stand to reason that in the periphery, changes within a community would also be observed relative to improved test scores. I have yet to see this, even before our economy took a turn southward.
I am scared the education system may have lied to people of color, again, and we did not do the right thing, rather we just shifted things around. I am not so sure that forgetting to teach science and history, because it is not on the test, is the best thing to do. I am not sure that making children dislike school, just to make the test scores go up, is the evidence that NCL B is working. I would rather have a struggling student who wanted to learn than a disengaged student who has to show up to school to learn and make the test scores go up.
http://policyweb.sri.com/cep/publications/KIPPYear_1_Report.pdf I did not work for KIPP, this is the most relevant piece of published data I could find to support the above comments. Please see the following pages in the mentioned report to understand my reflection: p. 16 middle, p. 17 3rd and 4th paragraphs and use of the word attrition, p. 18 below exhibit 6, p.22 last section, p. 24, middle of page – specifically where there is a comment on some kids needing more than the school can provide, p. 26 paragraph 2, p.27 bottom through to p. 29, p. 32 last paragraph, p. 34 no science since it is not on test, p. 35 use of word enrichment in italics, p. 40 bottom to 41 about sustainability, p. 48 founding teacher attitudes about not needing new ideas, p. 50, p. 51 second paragraph from bottom, p. 53, p. 55 sixth line, note the whole last section being focused only on test scores.
This book review was written by some one I do not know nor ever heard of until a friend suggested I read the review. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/02/20/ST2009022002959.html
The writer of this review is a professor from where I attended grad school, however, to my knowledge I do not know this person and found the review while reading the one directly above. http://ednews.org/articles/30543/1/Realistic-Expectations-Urged-for-KIPP-Schools/Page1.html
I have never heard of this person until I was reviewing recent pieces under KIPP performance. This writer states more effectively what I was trying to elucidate on above. http://eduwonkette2.blogspot.com/2007/10/do-kipp-schools-have-positive-effect-on.html
(3) Use of the n-bomb by people of color is so rampant I have to wholeheartedly agree with Eric Holder we need to teach history – specifically where/how/why and when slavery became a part of the U.S. history. I am saddened that so many people do not realize everyone came out of Africa, albeit at different times and in different ways, however, when the n-bomb is used, it denigrates all of us. Of course it would be simply amazing to just teach history at a public school (not on the test), never mind address issues which are significant and substantially important to living in the 21st Century. The pejorative use of the n-word saddens me as it is used self referentially (in pop culture) and is the gateway to using all the other negative words to refer to other groups (gay/lesbia, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, autistic and the list goes on). It creates a lack of boundaries, lack of self respect and when we talk negatively about ourselves, we begin to believe it. When I do have the difficult race discussion with people, if I can get them past the point of their belief that I have plum lost my mind, I can get them generally to the point of choosing to use other words to describe themselves and the reasoning why behind the choice. Of course, this does not imply in any way we don’t have a lot to teach in history or science – the magnitude is immense. Most recently I read Survival of the Sickest where one observation is made regarding the extreme amount of hypertension in black Americans could be related to the concept of the blacks who survived the hellish journey from Africa to the U.S. as slaves had to be particularly strong and be able to retain water (hence, hold salt in their body) since they were essentially starved and dehydrated on the journey. The people who survived, passed on genetically this ability to hold salt and stay well hydrated at the same time that the American diet became extremely salty (and fatty) due to the understandng of food preservation. It became a bomb. This is something important to teach in science, but alas, it is not on the test.
(4) The most significant event in my personal understanding of racism came as a result of a remarkable classmate in graduate school. This friend is an American as she was born in the U.S. while her parents were students at Cornell. She was raised in Kenya and is black. We were walking along and passed a man asking for spare change. Before I had the chance to open my purse, my friend shouted at him, “Get a job”, at which he shouted back, “You are from the motherland” as my friend has a distinct British accent. Needless to say, this man did not get any spare change from us. As we continued walking, we had the very deep and important discussion of race. My friend stated that this would be unacceptable in Kenya – you are expected to perform work for money and only in America do we feel we can expect less of people. Whoa – this threw my belief system on its head and then let it bounce. I immediately began asking my litany of thoughts/questions: He is the result of a society that is just coming out of slavery and has had few, if any opportunities to survive….How can you expect a street person to get a job? The American culture is such that we should, if possible, help others which are less fortunate due to circumstances (both of their own making and circumstances created by society), White people created this mess and we need to help fix it and on and on. Needless to say, this wonderful friend was able to shared her wisdom, truth and knowledge to help me get on a better path about my own understanding of race. She explained that when we lower our expectations, for any reason, we are accomplices in people not trying to improve their lot in life, you can not sanction begging as a job – it is not, this mans’ family needs to help him, stop feeling guilty/remorseful about situations that “just are” and so on. By the end of the afternoon I felt a wave of change in myself and knew I had to work on my own concepts – and I do. I often have this candid and open dialogue with my friends and explain up front to them, I need to learn more and get better at navigating living in plural society. I can never thank all of my friends for having the integrity and determination to have these discussions with me and help me improve my understanding. It takes courage, even with best friends to talk about something so deeply personal and heartfelt.
Eric Holder is correct. We need to be teaching a whole lot more about history. Truly, black history is not a month long event – it is a group of people who made substantial and significant contributions to the fabric of America; it is the opportunity to reflect on who we are as a nation (we have much to understand about ourselves both right and wrong) and what we aspire to be going forward. Race is not an us vs. them – it is about all of us, whether or not it is on the test now, it should be next year!