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Education-reform debate puts spotlight on institutional racism

levy-pounds portrait
Nekima Levy-Pounds

Recently, I attended the Reset Education forum sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation, which featured Steve Perry, Ph.D., from Hartford, Conn. Perry, an African-American principal of a highly successful school that is diverse in terms of race and socio-economic status, spoke truth in a manner that is uncommon in Minnesota. He talked about the fact that many of our school districts and teachers unions are adult-centered as opposed to child-centered and how that focus is contributing to the intolerable disparities in public education that exist in our state.

Although Perry’s talk was provocative and clearly ruffled some feathers, the bottom line is that he demonstrated that yes, children of color, and even children of color who live in poverty and/or so-called “broken homes” can learn! What Perry did that was so profound was that he proceeded to bust every myth and upend every excuse that is used to explain why the intolerable gaps between children of color and white children exist. (Notice that I did not use the term “achievement gap,” largely because of the importance of language and perception in this debate.)

The gap that exists is not one of “achievement” or capability of children of color to learn, the gap has to do with access to equal opportunity and equity within the systems designed to enhance and shape the learning outcomes of all children. This gap also has to do with the structural and institutional racism that is deeply embedded within our public education system and is perpetuated from one generation to the next.

Systems not designed ‘for us or by us’

Whether this is intentional or unintentional does not matter. What matters most are the outcomes that are produced when a system seeks to police itself without critical reflection and meaningful input from key stakeholders who care deeply about such issues. As the parent of African-American children, I have experienced firsthand the disappointments and frustrations of navigating school systems that are not designed “for us or by us.”

From a curriculum that is devoid of a rich exposition of African-American history and culture, to a stark shortage of teachers of color, to low expectations of those teaching my children in school, to being treated like a burden rather than a blessing as a school volunteer, to hearing stories of my children’s classmates being suspended, expelled, administratively transferred, or handcuffed on school property for minor infractions, I have seen it all — and I am deeply disturbed by what I have seen. The civil-rights attorney in me cries out for justice on behalf of these children. My children. Your children. Our children.

It is unfathomable to me that rather than approach these challenges with a sense of urgency, we continue to sit by while fully half or fewer of our African-American, Latino, and Native American children are graduating high school in four years. These children will make up our future work force, especially as baby boomers begin to retire in droves over the next few decades.

This is not just a problem that affects children of color, as even the four-year high-school graduation rate for white children has been on the decline in recent years. These challenges illustrate that our system is broken and we must work pretty hard to restore, and in some cases completely revamp it, in order to meet the needs of children in the 21st century.

Part of problem, or solution?

There comes a point in time when we must ask ourselves whether we are a part of the problem or a part of the solution; this question must be asked and answered by every stakeholder group, of which teachers’ unions are not exempt. This is not about launching unwarranted attacks on our teachers’ unions, but about taking the time to critically examine the crisis in public education and the solutions that are within reach, as schools like Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Leadership Academy clearly demonstrate.

Thus, it is high time that we stop making excuses and start working together to address the multifaceted challenges within our public school system. The longer that we continue to use poverty as an excuse for our failure to properly educate and prepare all of our students, irrespective of race, ethnicity, family status, or income levels, the more challenges we will face as a state, including increased spending on criminal justice.

In order to ensure sustained regional economic competitiveness, we must guarantee that every one of our children is provided with a high- quality education and a pathway to higher education and vocational opportunities, as studies show that roughly 70 percent of the jobs of the future will require at least some college. Let us resolve to remember that this battle is not about parents versus teachers, or unions versus community groups and foundations. This battle, plain and simple, is about educating and preparing all of our children and establishing the legacy that we intend to leave for the great State of Minnesota.

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and the founder and director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic.  She is also a trustee of the Minneapolis Foundation.


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/01/2013 - 11:40 am.

    Probably the biggest determinant of student success is entirely outside the control of the teacher and the school–the importance placed on education by the student and by the student’s parents or guardians and their peers. Perry’s schools illustrate this—self-selected families that are willing to sign up for longer school days, more difficult classes, and specified levels of parental involvement–those are the successes that make up the 50% of beginners that ultimately graduate from his school. And, by the way, if you have an IEP, persistent discipline problems, or limited-English, his school really doesn’t want you

    The teacher who, by law, draws from the general pool of students with no real selection process (with perhaps a higher concentration of difficult students, thanks to siphoning off the more motivated by schools like Perry’s) can only push or pull the student forward to a certain degree. It really only takes a couple of disruptive students to make education secondary for them or their classmates for a large portion of the school day.

    In an ideal world, all educators would be selfless people who, regardless of student and family attitudes and participation, sparked the imagination and learning of all of their students. But the fact is, teachers are people with a wide range of skill levels and burn-out levels. When it really comes down to it, the passion for their job is not much different than the passion that anyone has for their job. While they may be able to spark a passion for learning in their students, it is really the student and the student’s family that must ignite and sustain that passion. When it comes down to it, the teacher(s) have contact with a student less than 15% of the hours in a year–how much effect can you reasonably expect from that?

    I am really curious–what would an education system “for us or by us” look like? Would it restrict enrolment like Perry’s? Would it boot out disruptive students permanently from that school? Would the parents be happy if classes graduated only 50% of the originally enrolled numbers? What would parents of immigrants and parents of learning-disabled students think?

    While there is undoubtedly some racism in educators, as there is anywhere–I think you ask too much of people who work in difficult situations with little real control of what issues they can deal with or control that will significantly affect the outcomes of what they do. Perhaps where the charge of racism more properly belongs is the disconnect between the the results of a fine education and the ability to build on that education to make a fine life out of a good job–there are still too many places where equal educational outcomes do not guarantee equal opportunity.. An equal correlation of education and outcomes would serve to better emphasize the importance of education in getting ahead and reconnect the importance of an education.

  2. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 05/01/2013 - 05:15 pm.

    self-selected families

    Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that part of the success of KIPP-like schools derives from self-selected families… families or children who can be convinced to enroll in schools with high standards, extended school days and years, and a culture of success. How would that be an argument against these schools? Don’t those children and families deserve an option that harnesses their willingness to work hard and to succeed? Here we go again, with the same old debate. If these strategies work, then let’s get them implemented in regular public schools as well. If union teachers and their allies, the DFL, can’t find a way to make that happen at a price the DFL is willing to fund, unionized schools are going to die out.

    If Perry can create a classroom environment for these self selected kids where they work hard and succeed, why then can’t we do the same in public schools? Are we telling these hard working kids that they don’t deserve a chance to go to school with other children who are committed to learning, simply because they happen to have landed in the wrong neighborhood? Are we saying that great schools are the special province of only the few kids who happen to fall into one of the tiny minority of charter and traditional publics that cater to self selected families/

    Every child who wants to take advantage of a classroom environment that focuses on learning, that respects the teacher and the principal, that creates an environment of good citizenship and hard work, every such child deserves that option. The fact that only some children are ready to buckle down when given the opportunity, isn’t an argument against providing them that opportunity. Children whose parents can’t or don’t provide them with the home environment that supports learning need a longer school day, and a longer school day, and a more supportive school environment. And public education needs to find a way to provide them such an environment, instead of arguing about whose fault it is that we don’t provide that to them.

    If we in traditional public education can provide a better education to the children of self-selected families, then let’s do that. Its a start. And once we have done that, let’s go after the rest of them too. I’m sick of debating whether the barrier is white privilege, or irresponsible parents, or poverty, or unions. Let’s sweep all that away and implement the systems that work. That means that the unions are going to have to stop using the poverty alibi as an excuse to stand in the way of change. It means that the legislature is going to have to fund extended school days and extended school years, and increases in the number of adults in the classroom in the early years, and the legislature has to give public school districts the power to buy that time at a price that they can afford.

  3. Submitted by Angelique Kedem on 05/01/2013 - 07:57 pm.

    As a parent, I ask: ‘If it were your child, what would you want?

    Thank you Professor Levy-Pounds for this article. I had the privilege of hearing Steve Perry address Minnesota. As a Black parent, it was soul edifying to hear someone speak the truths that Minnesota culture resolutely shies away from: we have the worst education outcomes for children of color in the COUNTRY, in particular for Black children – the gap is vast whether it’s a suburban or urban school; and that as adults, we have made no meaningful changes. We do a good job of studying the problem, espousing our concern, but no action to match the urgency of the situation.

    Seeing the reaction of the Minneapolis Teachers Union, and seeing the comments from some educators, is deeply painful. I send my two beautiful little boys to public school every day. My concern first and foremost, for them and their peers, is that they receive a great education. This is what every parent, irrespective of race or class, desires for their child because we love our children and we understand how critical education is to their future prosperity. Parents of color want the best for our children, just the same as any parent would. They are two Black boys who come to school fed, from a home where education is valued, from parents who read to them at night, attend every school conference and communicates questions and concerns with their teachers.

    Yet, my boys are currently a statistic. I have had a teacher tell me that I should expect my child will ‘always be behind’. He went on to blow our socks off with his gains in reading. It is this lack of faith in the ability of my Black boy that shocks me. I expected that I could send my children to school and that they would be taught with an approach to unlock all of their potential. There are many Black parents with my story – I challenge the notion that parents of color sending their children to public schools do not value education.

    When we see that children of color trail their white counterparts wherever they are, we ask the question ‘why’? My conclusion is that, although sixty years after Brown versus the Board of Education, even though we sit in the same classrooms and hear the same curriculum, there is something in the transmittal, to Black students most especially, that is left out.

    Steve Perry named another truth on Monday a week ago: teaching is LOVE. This, I believe, is what is lacking for our children. Do we teach with love? Do we teach with an absolute belief in the potential and abilities of Black and poor children to excel? What do we really think when we call education disparities the ‘achievement gap’ as though there is an inherent inability to achieve in students of color.

    If we are serious about eliminating education disparities, if we love our children, if we believe the issue urgent, then we must act. This is the message to take away from Dr. Perry’s talk. If we see strategies such as those at Harvest Prep producing results that outpace other Minnesota schools, why are we not replicating them in our schools with the worst outcomes? When we look at the statistics and the successes of schools like Harvest Prep, teaching students in so called poverty, we can longer use ‘poverty’ or behavior as an excuse for poor outcomes, especially when poor white students seem to be doing just fine.

    What stands in the way of dedicating the necessary resources, making structural and school cultural changes to be there for our children NOW. As a parent, I ask: ‘If it were your child, what would you want? Now’?

  4. Submitted by Adam Platt on 05/01/2013 - 09:52 pm.


    Mr. Rovick’s comments are a refreshingly unemotional attempt to contextualize this topic. We can’t deny that there is a self-selecting component to the most successful charter schools. Nor can we deny that the most deeply troubled kids in need of the most specialized assistance are left for the public schools to contend with. Clearly there are educational models succeeding in these difficult contexts, but it is more complex a paradigm than Arne Duncan and Mr. Perry would make it out to be.

    I can accept the idea that impoverished black kids need teachers who are specially trained to deal with the life contexts they bring to class, and I support stripping teacher’s unions of seniority layoff prerequisites and dominion over classroom assignments. But I think when Ms. Levy-Pounds wants to claim that urban public education is “devoid of a rich exposition of African-American history and culture,” that is old rhetoric which is not accurate in today’s schools and calls many of her sweeping statements into question. But if it was true, then who is to blame? The Minneapolis district whose administration is run by African Americans?

    In reality I’ve yet to hear of an educational model that shows broad success across an entire urban district over a period of a decade or more, with vetted and tracked outcome statistics. I don’t believe every child can be motivated to thrive even within the charter culture. That said, the teacher’s unions have to get out of the way to prove their point. But as long as they cling to a 1950s model, they will be blamed, and deservedly so.

  5. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 05/01/2013 - 11:47 pm.

    Yes and no

    Yes, parents have a big impact on how youngsters view schools.
    At the same time, Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins has shown for more that 2 decades that the biggest impact on family involvement is not the income, race or marital status of the parent. The biggest impact is what the school does to promote it.
    Schools can do a great deal to encourage and assist families, as well as students. That’s part of what the most effective schools do.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2013 - 08:16 am.

    Math Lesson

    After completing kindergarten, a child will have spent 2% of their life (or 3 % of their awake hours) in school.

    After completing 5th grade, a child will have spent 7% of their life (or 10% of their awake hours) in school.

    After completing 8th grade, a child will have spent 8% of their life (or 12% of their awake hours) in school.

    After completing 12th grade, a child will have spent 9% of their life (or 13% of their awake hours) in school.

    There several things to be noted from those percentages.

    Face-time with a teacher is a small portion of the child’s life. That face time is shared with many other kids at the same time.

    The ages when a child is most open to learning and forming attitudes are when the smallest portion of their lives have been exposed to school.

    A total of 13%+ of the waking hours of a high school graduate have been spent in contact with a teacher. And that 13% is expected to be the major determinant of their life? How is that even a reasonable expectation? It can happen, but it indicates the weight of other factors in a student’s life.

    And by the way, I include the percent for all hours, waking and sleeping, because I truly believe the conditions under which a child sleeps (or doesn’t sleep) truly affects their outcomes in school.

    (percentages based on 6 hours of face-time with a teacher per school day, 180 school days in a year)

  7. Submitted by Chris Stewart on 05/05/2013 - 12:26 pm.

    Truth telling gets us closer to an equitable education system

    I too need to thank Professor Levy-Pounds for raising a well needed voice in the education debate.

    So often watching education discussions is like watching parents on the political right and left argue about us, without us. We hear about the supposed deficiencies of the black community, and what is best for us, from people that seem to have little understanding who we are.

    As a partner in the RESET education effort, I’m happy that Dr. Perry’s visit has caused considerable conversation. In Minnesota, where we seem to have a Wobegon complex (everyone is above average, and if they aren’t it must be their fault), it can be hard to move the public to address educational disparities with more than tired stereotypes about families in poverty. There is a lot of focus on preserving the current system, but little focus on “what works” for educating black children.

    I agree with Professor Levy-Pounds: “it’s high time we stop making excuses” and get about the business of modernizing our schools so they are successful with black, brown, and poor students.

    Undoubtedly some Minnesotans will incessantly point to poverty, politicians, parents, programs, and the public as the problem. Everything, conveniently, but practitioners. There are few possibilities for progress with that displacement of responsibility. We invest 40% of Minnesota’s budget in education and that investment should perform better than it does today.

    The good news is that success for all students is possible if we are willing to learn from successful schools rather than attempt to invalidate their achievement.

    For many parents, like Professor Levy-Pounds, Dr. Perry, Eric Mahmoud, and others with experience as black educators, this discussion isn’t abstract. It’s mission critical for our own children, and for the community we care so much about. While we all could do better to support the children most in jeopardy, our schools offer particular promise to uplift our youngest citizens into productive lives as participants in a vibrant democracy. It isn’t happening now, but Dr. Perry, Mahmoud, and many others in traditional and non-traditional schools are proving it can be done.

    We would do ourselves well to heed the word of community members that raise authentic voices from within marginalized communities; especially those with successful records of educating children that others struggle to educate. If we can get past the reactionary defensiveness, rigid self-interest, and unfounded institutional arrogance so commonly used to support the existing system, we might write a new story – one truly worthy of Minnesota.

  8. Submitted by Patrice Gonzales on 05/05/2013 - 08:35 pm.

    Lets be real

    Yes there is institutional racism and white privilege amongst some teachers, but the single most important indicator of success in a child’s life is parental involvement. Yes we need our children to see themselves in the curriculum we teach. Yes we need teachers to employ critical culturally responsive pedagogy. But, we also need to start ensuring that families have a stable place to call home. Children need interactive parenting as well as regular sleep times. Children need healthy food in their bellies so that they can concentrate. We need to stop the blaming and focus on the solutions. The solutions do not lie in teaching our kids to the test, drilling them for a moment in time test, or chastising them when they don’t score well. We need to teach them critical thinking skills, problem solving, and how to be innovators instead of imitators. Let their minds be curious and full of imagination. In kindergarten we should be allowing them to learn via play and structured time. Our kids need this and they are demanding our attention. As an African American teacher I resent the oversimplification of the issues we are faces with in school classrooms. I resent corporate interests who feign interest in our kids educations, but are opening subpar schools which do not educate. My grandparents and parents fought for our kids to receive an equal education in the public school system not to have some kids taught while others are left to their own vices. We are negating Brown vs Board of Ed and Justice Thurgood Marshall would be, I believe, furious that we are not working to make sure that the public school system is not privatized, working to make sure that parents know how to advocate for their children, and working in collaboration with a system which has educated countless of professional black, brown, and red people. Lets get real! I have conducted me research on this topic and it still stands that a teachers influence is not a great determinate of success but the parents influence is insurmountable!

  9. Submitted by Keith Lester on 08/19/2013 - 12:35 pm.

    It’s more than just one “thing”

    I find myself agreeing with much of what has been written here. In particular, the words of Dr. Levy-Pounds. It is time to stop making excuses for why our education system is not succeeding – particularly for African American boys. The issues are not one-dimensional. I will discuss only a few of the issues as I see them below. For me the greatest issue is that most people agree with these things, then pick and choose which ones to work on. I say work on all of them – integrated and collaboratively.

    Housing and Communities are critical to the success of children, families and the communities themselves. It’s a no-brainer but, as usual, we consider this, along with other factors in isolation. It’s more than housing/communities.

    Health and Wellness are contributing factors in determining student success. While there are inequities in how these services are provided, our learning levels will be unequal.

    Out of school time programming has been proven to have a significant impact on learning, yet schools have had to rely on grants, volunteers and small budgets to create quality programs. And, in urban areas, the need is the greatest as is the lack of equitable, quality programming. These programs address academic deficiencies, but they also address multiple social issues including law enforcement, civic responsibility, character building and, yes, even babysitting.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard (and said), we believe in parent involvement, but they just won’t get involved. We go on to point out families in poverty have multiple jobs, they don’t speak the language and they don’t trust schools. There are ways to overcome these and more. It starts with talking to parents, talking with community leaders. And when we’re done talking, it takes real, intentional action to connect with families. It has been and can be done.

    Add to the list a definite lack of cultural competence by educators, a need for stronger teacher education programs, more quality instruction, instructional resources, high expectations for all and a great deal more around the unique needs of our very diverse children and families. These issues can be overcome when, as I stated at the beginning of my comments, we consider them from a holistic standpoint.

    However, another aspect of this “holistic” approach involves getting all of the stakeholders on the same page. There needs to be leadership that can bring together government, government agencies, schools, unions, non-profits, families and communities to the table, agree there isn’t one “magic bullet,” and work collaboratively.

    I’ve found, after 43 years in education that there is enough blame to go around. Blame the unions – ok. Blame the schools and administrators – ok. Blame the state and federal government – ok. However, blame isn’t going to get us anywhere. As Dr. Levy-Pounds and Dr. Perry and many of the comments here point out, there is an urgency here that has no time for blame and no time for excuses.

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