Public (School) Enemy Number One: How Structural Racism Undermines Public Education

Let there be no mistake. Public enemy number one in New Orleans' public schools is structural racism.

Despite the various narratives of progress, black and brown kids across our city--almost regardless of school, age, neighborhood, or income--are punished, threatened, failing, and producing predictable, vilified, low test scores. This is no surprise to any of us--not a one.

These results are not a mistake.

No, these are the predictable, consistent results of a system in precise balance. These are the oppressive results of structural racism in both our schools and our city and country at-large.

In fact, white supremacy is prevalent in every layer of New Orleans's public school system--from the dominant media narratives of our city and its education system to the inequitable funding structures that finance our schools; from disempowered parents to irresponsible and inaccurate uses of data; from resegregation of students and staff to the inequitable representation in governance; from private financing, influence, and bias down to the nuts and bolts of curriculum and school culture.

You Think You Know, But You Have No Idea: The True Diary of New Orleans Public Schools

For the myriad articles, books, and documentaries written on the topic, the true story of public education in New Orleans is parallel to that of nearly all public institutions across this great nation--a battle for racial and class equity in a system crippled by the invisible but very real shackles of systems that undermine that pursuit.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. There are tens of thousands of well-intentioned, hard-working people who do prodigious things for one another and for the kids of New Orleans, but who do so often blind to the truth of what is holding us all back and therefore often inadvertently hurting the cause they work so hard to help.

Young White Teacher in an Old Black City: Accounting for My Privilege and Mistakes

To be clear, I am an educator: a white transplant educator. I was part of Teach for America's 2008 Greater New Orleans corps of nearly 300 mostly-white, mostly-transplant 20-somethings who were recruited to come to this city to teach for two years to supposedly serve the needs of New Orleans's kids.

I have, unequivocally, been a part of the problem during my time in New Orleans, scolding kids for petty transgressions, buying into staff and school CULTures that model dictatorial power structures for my mostly-black students, punishing kids who were going through deep traumas, and teaching a simplified curriculum divorced from the reality of my kids' lives and needs.

It was constructive dialogue with peers, parents, and students that pushed me to finally analyze the errors in my ways and understand what all of us truly need to do to make sure that all kids in New Orleans live happier and healthier lives.

I am now beginning my eighth year as a public school teacher in New Orleans, now at my third school in the region. I am also parents of a 4 year-old son newly enrolled in pre-K in the New Orleans public school system (albeit paying tuition because of my income).

I still teach in a New Orleans open-enrollment charter because I have found a role that allows me to spend my days facilitating more multidisciplinary, liberatory experiences for my amazing students; but I am still a white transplant earning a living wage teaching mostly black and brown kids. Being white, I am privileged to face fewer ramifications for speaking up in certain situations than some of my colleagues of color, and thus feel responsible to help share the perspective that those colleagues of color have helped me and others reach.

So, Is it Better?: Comparing Pre-Katrina to Post-Katrina

We should also be clear that it is hard to draw a fair comparison between the schools in New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina, just the same way that it's hard to draw a comparison between their respective student bodies.

Both are fundamentally different. And that is ultimately the wrong question to be asking because both are less than what our children deserve.

There are, indisputably, many good things happening throughout the city for kids of color. But there are also, equally clearly, many enduring bad things happening for those same kids and their community.

You see, New Orleans is an indigenous-swampland-turned-bustling-port by European settlers of many ethnicities who amassed the wealth of a continent on the displacement of a civilization of native peoples and the hard labor of enslaved Africans: a place where some of the harshest cruelties of decades of legalized segregation, hatred, rape, and plunder played themselves out for the past three centuries--and arguably still do to this day.

After legal desegregation in 1954 (which still to this day has never truly been enforced almost anywhere in this country!), New Orleans only had the chance to educate a few generations of its children in its public schools before media began skewering the system's faults.

The largely-unpublicized truth is that pre-Katrina New Orleans was a city and education system in multi-generational renaissance where a great diversity of truly public, neighborhood, community schools were instilling a sense of identity, building community, and cultivating leadership. New Orleans was in the early stages of shedding its overtly racist and oppressive past, beginning the deep, generational work of healing and educating its young to create a new type of social fabric.

Yet that same school system in renaissance was also home, in places, to violence, apathy, underachievement, and corruption upon which Katrina provided an opportunity to improve.

Public School Pirates: The Hostile Takeover of New Orleans Public Schools

Unfortunately, that reform movement was commandeered almost entirely by white leadership, both public and private, who jumpstarted the reform effort by firing all 7,000 plus educators in the public school system (mostly educated, black middle-class jobs), dismantling the teacher's union (a historic, black-lead community organization), promoting hyper-disciplined school cultures that demand conformity and total compliance from kids (mostly of color) to teachers (mostly white), and simplifying how we measure schools' successes down to math and reading test scores (measures that don't correlate to the needs of any students).

I hear the many CEOs, school leaders, and non-profit directors of the reform movement saying, "But what about the racism of low expectations that existed before the storm? Don't we need to be promoting rigor and data-driven instruction in our classrooms to make sure that no kid falls behind?" To them I ask, "What are your high expectations now?"

Yes, the expectations for compliance and quantitative data--both from staff and students--are much more rigorous, but to what end?

A dear friend of mine--a black, female assistant-principal of a large charter school--returned horrified after the first day of summer development for teachers at her new school. The opening day was being led by a for-profit consulting group born by a group of "high-performing, no-excuses" schools in Boston--a consulting group whose market share has increased each of its first 3 years in New Orleans. 

The instructor opened by asking the room full of teachers and administrators, "Who thinks discipline is the most important thing in school?" My colleague was alarmed when hers was the only hand up in the entire room for discipline not being the most important thing (figuring education, character, happiness, or health might trump it). That alarm quickly turned into disgust when the facilitator briskly corrected her for having the wrong answer, praised everyone else for understanding that key point, and moved on without a moment of debate or discussion.

The Golden Rule and the Audacity of Healing

Whether well-intentioned philanthropy or an example of Disaster Capitalism, this approach to reform undermines what kids and communities in New Orleans really need: a liberatory education that addresses the material conditions of kids' lives, breaks down the societal structures that create their oppression, and promotes self love and worth, healing, reconciliation, and restitution from historical and contemporary traumas.

Educating all of our kids well is within our reach. It's remarkably simple: we must educate every child as if he or she was our own. Though of course we all know that raising our own children well is deep, grueling work.

Below I propose a web of actions we can take at various levels of our society, whether you are an educator, student, parent, or citizen. May these generate discourse and actions that improve all of our lives for generations to come.

  • We must clarify the goal(s) of educating our children. I would argue that the best metrics of a successful education are the happiness and health of the human being and the community in which they exist. These stand in opposition to the more standard metrics of accomplishment or competitiveness that are often used to frame the purpose of our education system. We ought to invest time as a society clarifying what we want our kids to really get out of their education.
  • We must clarify the obstacles preventing us from achieving those goals. The common answers to this question are "the achievement gap" or "inequity." Though these are both true, I would argue that public enemy number one is the structural racism that maintains and deepens the inequity which creates the achievement gap in this country. If we can actually name structural racism as the biggest obstacle impeding our progress, then we can better align our resources to dismantle those oppressive structures.
  • We must resource education according to our goal(s). We must revisit the conversation of how much to spend on education and how to allocate it only once we have clarified our goals. I imagine we might come away deciding that we need to spend much more per-pupil (accordingly, a much larger percent of our federal, state, and local budgets) to really give our children what they deserve. Along with this, we also need to delineate which responsibilities fall under the school (and resource those responsibilities adequately) while also separating out responsibilities that are better served, say, by local health-care or housing agencies.
  • We must figure out how to measure the actual life outcomes and early indicators of those outcomes that we want for our kids. Yes, data driven instruction is crucial--the trick is paying attention to the right data. What will help us determine the right data is having a clear sense of goals and what gets in their way. From there we can determine which data points really lead to the types of outcomes we want to see for all of our children, that way our schools can focus on measuring those and get rid of the panoply of tests that currently maintain a stranglehold on urban schools.
  • We must root our kids' education in real-life experiences (not artificial tests and standards) and measure their progress with real-life tasks. I imagine this would happen without needing to say it explicitly once our goals are clear. Once our goals are greater than academic achievement, we can no longer rationalize curricular silos called "subjects." Our kids must be immersed in a wealth and diversity of experiences and projects that real humans do--across cultures, ages, and epochs. Kids must do the learning, not receive or memorize it. Every assessment must be a project or task based on projects that real adults do in the real world, every class connected to a real human job, passion, or experience.
  • We must root our kids' education in critical thinking by questioning our species' "successes." We must reorient the culture of our schools to foster, teach, and reward kids who ask hard questions, constructively challenge authority, and create new ways of being. We must explicitly promote an agenda of elevating the best things that make us human and solving our species' most endemic problems. We must help our kids reckon with the fact that our scientific "successes" have left us with technology that has reaped ecological destruction and social isolation; and our economic "successes" have left us with the most inequality every experienced by any species in our planet's history, built from a history and present of legalized exploitation.
  • We must root our kids' education in creative and divergent thinking. Similarly, we must reorient the culture of our schools to foster, teach, and reward kids who do the unexpected, dismantle and rebuild things, and who create new and beautiful things in the world. This applies both to the arts and to teaching kids how to design, build, run, evaluate, improve, and dismantle our systems on Earth, from law and media to infrastructure and technology.
  • We must promote diversity and autonomy (not standardization) in curriculum, pedagogy, and outcomes. Biodiversity is nature's wonder and its insurance policy; we must learn from and seek to protect and proliferate the world's indigenous and aboriginal cultures that hold so much of our species' fundamental knowledge of how the universe and we work together. This means promoting a rich biodiversity of schools, goals, pathways, and outcomes.
  • We must model our human systems off of natural ones. Our education system cannot be one simply of human extraction or gain. Living systems have the ability to sustain good things for billions of years and evolve into even greater ones. We must orient our human systems around similar goals, carefully observe how natural systems achieve such prosperity, and emulate their design to the benefit of all species. Only that level of design will ensure true, sustaining equity.
  • We must promote a set of values and character strengths that emphasize love, cooperation, and universal community. To paraphrase the words of acclaimed Holocaust survivor, child psychologist and author, Dr. Haim Ginott, we must not raise learned engineers who go on to build gas chambers or educated physicians who poison children. Above any curriculum, we must foster, teach, and model a culture based on universal unity and brotherhood of all beings, human and non-human, to truly understand and honor our interconnectedness.
  • We must teach our kids to question reality, to construct their own truth empirically, and to love themselves for who they are. To synthesize the previous points, our pedagogy must be based on teaching kids fundamentally to question, synthesize evidence into truth, and be content and self-loving as a foundation for loving others.
  • We must seek to recruit, develop, retain, honor, and compensate vast leagues of incredibly skilled career educators. None of us would have become happy, healthy humans without the stable loving care of someone or something in our lives. The best chance we can give all of our kids at achieving such happiness and health is to ensure the stability and preparedness of those entrusted to love and care for them. Accordingly, to steal from the genius of Dr. Jeff Duncan Andrade, we must recruit our educators like we currently do athletes. We must treat them like franchise players, nurture their talents, reward their accomplishments, and honor them culturally and fiscally for the most fundamental work in our society.
  • We must evaluate ourselves by what we want for our own children and great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. We must not compromise on resources or approaches that we would give to our most privileged children and we must evaluate ourselves by the projected outcomes 7 generations out. This is not to say that every kid should have the same thing, but that we should spare no expense on any kid, the same way we wouldn't on the luckiest. It's not just that we can't spare any expense now, it's that we must understand the implications of our investments for many generations to come, and make wise choices accordingly.
  • Educators must organize and engage in critical dialogue and praxis parallel to their planning and teaching. No group of responsible adults entrusted with the lives of our young people should do so in a dictatorial school structure that over-works them and neglects their ability to self-organize. Adults teaching kids must constantly be engaged themselves in the acts of facilitating democratic structures, intelligent debate, and community organizing. Educators must debate the structures of their school, school system, and curriculum and make critical choices cooperatively to advance the quality of education and educational institutions.
  • We adults must maintain active, differentiated involvement: teach, volunteer, serve on boards, observe, discuss and ask questions, vote, read, write, organize. Certainly much of this list is written for educators, students, and parents--but all of us fall into those categories at some point in our lives. Wherever you are at this point in your life, maintain an awareness of and a caring for our education system, even if that means just supporting one single child, educator, or project. The beautiful thing is that with a diversity of involvement, we will naturally fulfill all of our needs.

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