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Fixing ourselves: Three suggestions for fellow white liberals who want to fix education

We all live in our own little bubbles.

A while back, MinnPost reprinted my post, “Forget about fixing black kids. What if we fixed white liberals instead?” The piece got more than 100 comments. There was the usual thread of “You Ed Reformers Are Scott Walker Incarnate Bent On Destroying Public Education As We Know It.” But the very first comment read, “So what do we do today to make things better? What fix should we pursue this morning?”

Lynnell Mickelsen

Great question. Here are three suggestions:

a) Brush up on history. Specifically, go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic Monthly and no, don’t blow it off based on the title. It’s a powerful piece of reporting and history that connects a lot of dots — as does Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which I also recommend.

b) Sit with it. Just sit with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece for a couple of days or a week or a month. Let that history roll around in your head and sink in.

I know. I know — this does not sound like an action plan. In fact, I feel a little fidgety just writing it down. White liberal activists like moi like to charge into action with a list of demands because, hey, we want to make the world a better place. Also, because we like to be in charge as well as star in our own racial justice dramas (which is how we end up with movies like “The Help” or “Mississippi Burning” — but I digress).

The problem with going this route is that we run the risk of replacing White Privilege 1.0 with White Privilege 2.0, which is why I suggest we also …

c) Support and listen. Support parents of color in their quest to improve their children’s education and schools. Which means listening to their stories and their ideas and trying to remove the political and institutional obstacles in their way.

Of course, there’s no monolithic opinion from any group of people on any topic. But in my experience, parents of color consistently say the following: 

1) They want great public schools in their own neighborhood where their kids are safe, thriving and achieving academically. Period. Most parents don’t really care if these schools are the traditional district types or public charters. And they don’t necessarily care whether these schools are integrated or not. If they must, they’ll drive across town. But they’d prefer having a great school in their own neighborhood.

None of this should be surprising. White middle-class parents want the same thing and if they don’t have it, they move to a neighborhood or suburb where they can get it.

2) They want more teachers, administrators and staff who look like their kids and welcome their families. (White parents already have this.)

3) They want schools to stop over-suspending their children as well as over-identifying them for special education. (Most white parents don’t have to deal with this.)

There’s more, of course. And obviously my limited local experience can’t begin to take in the breadth of opinion within communities of color. But if you ask me to come up with some concrete ideas, parents of color repeatedly say they want these things and there’s a real sense of urgency about it.

Now contrast this with the concerns typically coming from aging liberals, labor allies and legislators from my beloved Democratic team, who tend to be overwhelmingly white. Within my tribe, there is a great deal of talk decrying “corporate” reform, “high-stakes” testing, “privatization” (i.e. the growth of public charter schools) and the various pathologies of poverty. We also talk a about wrap-around social services (which I think is a great idea) and wax nostalgic for schools where “the teacher’s voice is honored” and “childhood happens.” There’s a sense of urgency in protecting the current system; far less so for changing it.

Notice the difference between these two lists.

Now granted, we all live in our own little bubbles. I started out as a fervent defender of both the union and traditional district schools. I changed in part because I started listening to actual parents of color as opposed to assuming things about them. But who knows? I may now simply be in new reformy bubble and only listening to stories that reinforce my current beliefs.

But that being said, I have yet to hear a parent of color say they left a traditional district school because they didn’t like standardized testing or they wanted more social services. Instead, parents talk about leaving schools because the low achievement levels worried them and because the teachers, administrators, policies or building culture seemed indifferent or hostile to their children’s needs. Instead of decrying public charter schools, these parents often flee to them. If we want them to come back to traditional district schools, we need to create schools tailored to their needs as opposed to our own.

So in answer to “what do we do today to make things better? What fix should we pursue this morning?” I’d say, when in doubt, actually listen to the stories of parents of color — and follow their lead.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a long-time progressive activist who lives in Minneapolis and blogs about education at putkidsfirstmn.org.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/30/2015 - 07:06 am.

    The one flaw in your logic

    Well really in the whole privilege debate really, is, what if they’re wrong? What if however well intentioned, dedicated to success of their children, active in their community they might be, these “parents of color” are simply wrong about what might be best for their children’s success? To be sure, this can apply in the other direction as well, but it seems in this whole privilege discussion we become so wrapped up in the “who” is speaking and what the power dynamics are between them, we seldom pause to consider the “what” of the conversation. If we believe something is a disaster waiting to happen (is school “reform”) you really believe the best course of action is to sit idly by and watch it fail for the sake of racial decorum? Liberal though I may be, that’s a rhetorical bridge too far.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 03/30/2015 - 09:33 am.

    Only the parent can decide what is best for their child. White liberals are always sure their way is the best and they know how to fix inner city schools. History clearly shows this is not the case, with more involvement than ever by State/Fed in past 40 yrs inner city schools are performing worse. How about letting go of the power and empower the parents to decide what is best for their own kids.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/30/2015 - 01:39 pm.

      Incorrect

      There are lots of parents who are incapable of deciding on what’s best for their kids. Unfortunately, the biological function of the reproductive organs has little influence over the logical/critical function of peoples’ brains. So, on that premise, you’re wrong.

      Second, based on my research, history does not show that inner city schools are performing worse. Even if it was easy to compare performance from today to performance 40 years ago, I don’t think we’d see an overall negative trend based on “inner city” school performance. Rather, I think the data show that the strong link between poverty and poor student performance holds as poverty and income inequality is getting worse. Whether that’s a function of lack of resources or student inability to perform due to circumstances isn’t entirely clear. But, what IS clear is that all of the “new” education reform related to poverty stricken areas has failed to result in improvement.

      Sources:
      http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/96184all.pdf
      https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=16
      http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2014/10/07/sat-scores-and-income-inequality-how-wealthier-kids-rank-higher/

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/31/2015 - 06:54 am.

        Partially correct

        Even if you’re capable of making a decision, most minority parents have no role in their children’s education in school. Decisions are made by the school board, which is usually made up of effette liberal parents who care about their own children.

        Take St. Louis Park. The biggest achievement of the school disctrict in the past 15 years was to build a Spanish Immersion, a.k.a a Private school for white kids with public money. And guess who runs the school board ? The parents of the Spanish Immersion.

        More examples –

        There is a line across Louisiana Avenue and the schools on the West Side are for , as Donald Trump would say, “the blacks”.

        Their minority AP participation is done by shoving minority kids into AP Psychology !!!

        I offered a soccer program for $30 where i said i would refund any money to any parent. It was denied.

        The median scores of white kids may be higher, but in SLP the highest scores are from the poorer families (Russian and Indian kids)

        Sure there are many minority parents who don’t care. However there are tons who are hosed by the system.

        Simple suggestion. Go to any school district. Check out the minority participation in any of the private sports leagues. Even if the minority population is 40 percent, the parent and/or child minority participation will be around 10 percent.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/01/2015 - 09:16 am.

          I’m not sure we disagree

          Lots of kids are hosed by the system. That’s not wrong. What’s wrong is the belief that parents automatically have the solution. Or even what parents want is what’s best for the kids. This dog whistle call against white liberals is ridiculous. The fact that there’s not as much participation in the system by minorities has less to do with some white need to control the education of non-white kids. There are definitely minorities involved in public education. Rather, it’s got pretty much everything to do with the ABILITY to participate. Time and money are required for getting involved, which is a disadvantage for a huge part of the population, increasingly so, and disproportionately for minority populations. After that, there needs to be a WILL to get involved. And, after getting hosed by the system for quite some time and then watching as the system gets tweaked in ways to make it even worse, why would you believe you have any power in the system? Even if you had all of the solutions. Which you don’t because you’ve never had the time or money to really be involved.

          These kids are not genetically inferior, not incapable of learning at the same level as white kids. In fact, it’s probably less to do with being a minority than it is related to parental involvement. Unfortunately, in many cases, poor parents are too busy working jobs that don’t give a rip about whether their kid needs mom or dad to stay home due to illness or be home on time to help with homework or watch them at their concert or game. And, even if they could, the cycle of poverty doesn’t necessarily provide parents with the ability to either help with homework or afford to let their kids play sports.

          And, even when they try to give their kids the best chance and send them to one of those charter schools that claim excellence, those kids are worked up one side and down the other without any physical activity at all, let alone extracurricular activities of any kind, and in the end…there’s no indication that those kids succeed after graduating.

          I admit, I don’t have kids and I don’t have intimate familiarity with all of the schools in the state. But I do talk to friends who do and I do interact with kids that are in school, including one of those charter schools. I’m terribly unimpressed with the charter school. And I’m disappointed that we’ve all gotten so stingy with public education that we’re going to focus solely on how horrible all the teachers are (they’re not) so we can justify giving them pauper wages and fail to fund anything outside of strict academics, and even then, teachers often pay out of their pockets for good school supplies. Even if extracurriculars are available, as they still are in many regular public schools, there’s little point in it for poorer kids because they can’t afford the fees and ridiculous schedules that require a parent chauffer on almost a daily basis.

          As for school boards made up of effete liberal parents, I quite disagree. While some boards might have such individuals serving on them, they most certainly are not limited to such. Public school board positions are elected in MN. If the school board is made up of people you don’t think should run a school, your vote needs to reflect that. In any case, there are quite a few conservatives that land on school boards–feel free to check some out.

        • Submitted by Sara Bergen on 04/01/2015 - 01:39 pm.

          Hi Raj would you mind contacting me? I am very interested in talking with you about your SLP experiences as I have had similar concerns. You can find me on FB sa Sara Dunlap Bergen. Thx.

  3. Submitted by mike schoonover on 03/30/2015 - 10:59 am.

    here’s the problem. it has nothing to do with white guilt. the children of color that are being “over suspended” or “being identified for other problems” are not being over suspended or over identified for anything. they represent what is going on in the inner cities. they are causing the majority of the problems and in need of more special help because of the environment they grow up in. until their parents start teaching them moral and civic responsibility
    no amount of education or money or white guilt will change anything. its not about being poor,it about bad or non-existent parenting.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/30/2015 - 11:00 am.

    And when you listen to people of color

    you’ll find that their preferred solutions are the solutions offered by conservatives … the freedom to choose schools and for teachers to quit making assumptions about a kid’s intellect because of his skin color (“the soft bigotry of low expectations”). Or as someone once said to me “You’re pretty smart for an Indian.”

    The problem is, solutions like school vouchers which enable families to decide which school is best for their kid regardless of cost, is opposed universally by the white liberal education establishment because it might be harmful to the status quo … and because black parents might make choices that the white experts disagree with.

    Unlike you, I grew up in a black neighborhood and went to the neighborhood school. But in 1954, Maxfield School was the newest school in town with the finest facilities available. My first teacher was a young black woman named Katy McWatt. I had no idea she was a black teacher, she was just my teacher.

    The black families loved their neighborhood and they loved their kids’ school because it was the best the city had to offer.

    But then the Supreme Court ruled that “separate is not equal” and with it the attempt to “solve the problem” by moving kids around to schools to make them racially balanced became the mission. And the destruction of the American public school system was underway.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/30/2015 - 11:52 am.

    Here’s a radical idea

    Why not have a parent of African American children tell us what the parents of African American children want? Otherwise, this is just another white “liberal (and I use the term guardedly here)” telling white liberals what someone else wants. In other words, another white liberal deciding they know what is best for African Americans.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/30/2015 - 11:52 am.

    Rather than filling your heads with leftist clap-trap, I suggest learning from someone whose life provides a road map to success for kids from struggling, one parent homes.

    http://www.biography.com/people/tim-scott-21105641
    Senator Scott, a very self depreciating, humble man, often speaks to kids in low income neighborhoods, he says “If I can do it, so can any of you”.

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/30/2015 - 12:06 pm.

    It’s kind of a hall-of-mirrors effect—a “white liberal” lecturing other white liberals on how white liberals don’t really know what minorities want and need.

    Apparently a dose of Ta-Nehisi Coates is what is needed, then the shocking news that what minorities want becomes apparent—representatively-staffed neighborhood schools that provide a good education and treat their children fairly.

    Gee, thanks for opening the minority experience up for us.

    Now how about addressing the difficult issue such as the significant disparity between the races in kindergartner readiness and 3rd grade reading proficiency.

    see:

    http://www.minneapolisfoundation.org/OneMinneapolis/Home/How.aspx

    It’s those early deficiencies that prevent the achievement of a successful education career. Unremediated early failure and disconnection mean higher levels of failure in all grades.

  8. Submitted by Sara Bergen on 03/30/2015 - 12:20 pm.

    Thanks Lynnell

    I read many comments from your last post, and have read the ones thus far for this post. Please know that there are plenty of people out here in readership-land who are nodding their heads in agreement as we read what you have written. Your words and actions are very inspiring. I just wanted to publicly say thank you.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/30/2015 - 03:30 pm.

    The old, white, liberal, retired teacher

    You can’t please everyone.

    I’m inclined, first of all, to endorse RB Holbrook. The echo chamber effect is especially prevalent around these issues, and a bunch of educated white folks writing and responding to each other doesn’t tell us much about the black experience in schools.

    To qualify that endorsement, however, I’m also inclined to agree with Rachel Kahler, who is, I feel sure, not talking just about black parents, but *any* parents. Reproductive behavior and critical thinking are often antithetical. Educational “success” has historically been defined and predicted most accurately by the socioeconomic status of the parents. That little truism, which has been recognized for half a century at a minimum, dovetails fairly precisely with my experiences dealing with the parents of both low and high-achieving black students, and, not incidentally, low and high-achieving white and asian students, as well. Details (e.g., technology) have changed since I left the classroom, but I see little evidence that investments by and for children’s education have altered in any dramatic way. To say that parents want what’s “best” for their children adds nothing to the debate, and, as Ms. Kahler suggests, there are people out there who really are not in a position to make an accurate assessment of what’s best for their offspring in the long run.

    Mike Schoonover’s point is not without merit. There are plenty of blocks in this and many another city where one might well search in vain for a role model, especially for a young male of color. That is both tragic for the people involved, and corrosive to the society in which we live. Fixing it would require personal, public and political will that I see little evidence of in recent years.

    Mr. Tester’s solution, sadly, doesn’t work. Returning to the good ol’ days before Brown vs. Board is incoherent, and demonstrably wrong. Meanwhile, vouchers have been tried, repeatedly, and in those cases where voucher schools have student populations similar to nearby public schools, they produce results that are generally no better. Generally no worse, either, but also no better than the public schools they’re designed to replace. Much the same can be said of “public” charter schools. Programs that perform markedly better than nearby public schools, on closer examination, have generally been able to cherry-pick their student population, or they employ methods that the law forbids in a public setting. Often it’s both.

    I will say, however, that Mr. Tester’s point about the quality – by which I presume he means the physical environment – of a local school is also not without merit. What mostly-black MSD elementary school is “the best the city has to offer?”

    In similar fashion, Mr. Swift adds nothing of value to the debate. If the phrase “If I can do it, so can you” were truly applicable, we’d all be competing for our 3rd or 4th Nobel Prize, shoveling money from one investment to another, and purchasing our candidate of choice for the next election without putting a significant dent in our available liquid assets. That would be after our careers as (you pick) entertainer of the year, movie star, sports star, race car driver, television phenomenon, etc. And, of course, race and/or ethnicity would have had nothing to do with it. Somewhere in the universe there may be a world with a society like that, but it doesn’t exist on this planet.

    I’m also inclined toward Neal Rovick’s conclusion. There are really good reasons why preschool is important, especially for those households where the parents are not themselves very well educated (See Ms. Kahler, above). If we would (we could, but so far we don’t) get every little kid of every color ready for kindergarten, and reading capably by 3rd grade, much of the hand-wringing would be unnecessary and we’d have another “Minnesota Miracle” on our hands.

    And finally, I, too, am appreciative of Lynnell’s going out on a limb to put these issues right in our faces. “Head in the sand” is not an effective strategy for success in any field of endeavor. I often disagree with her solutions, but she’s raising issues that need to be raised.

  10. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/30/2015 - 08:17 pm.

    Three things

    The first thing to do is NOT to read the books Ms. Mickelsen is suggesting to read – they do not reflect current reality and feeling of guilt that those books may bring up doesn’t help much.

    The second thing to do is to remember that good parents, regardless of color, instill the value of education in their children and that does not require any actual knowledge on the parents’ side. So even uneducated parents can be role models for their kids and help them succeed. And all these parents do want good schools and teachers.

    The third thing to do is to understand that if parents, again, regardless of color, do not instill the values of education in their kids, nothing we, as a society, can do to help those kids short of taking them away from those parents. Unfortunately, these parents do not care about schools and teachers so again, nothing we can do about that: no matter what is done is schools, the home attitude will prevail. And the only way to break this cycle is to bring back personal responsibility meaning that everyone gets what one deserves.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/30/2015 - 09:00 pm.

    Not again?

    Point A: Why are the majority of minorities in the city? It isn’t because white liberals are locking them in.
    Point B: Why are suburban schools typically doing better than urban schools? It isn’t because white suburban conservatives care about urban education.
    Point C: Why is there more poverty in the inner city? It isn’t because our neighbors want to raise their kids in that environment.
    Point D: Ask the loaded question you will get a loaded answer.
    Point E: Is the educations system corrupt? Probably as corrupt as near every other private and public institution in America.

    Its complex and its real, there are no silver bullets, a better economic and social environment will lead to higher standards and expectations for all.

    Its not easy now never has been, never will be, everyone has a perspective that does not necessary line up with a formula for success, “Including vouchers” Why do you need vouchers of all schools are performing to expectation?

    To state the obvious is not a path to resolution, nor anything more than a self aggrandizement platitude.

    If folks are really interested in success: Time to quit pointing fingers and strap on that yoke of accomplishment start pulling this wagon towards a better end!

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/30/2015 - 10:55 pm.

    Hsve I read this ….

    before ?

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/31/2015 - 07:32 am.

    An agenda

    Whenever I read articles about how to make schools better, I ask myself, is there something proposed here that I can do today to improve our schools. In this article, there are three proposals:

    “1) They want great public schools in their own neighborhood where their kids are safe, thriving and achieving academically.”

    This suggestion is a goal, not a specific. Everybody wants schools to be better, the question is, how do we make them better?

    “2) They want more teachers, administrators and staff who look like their kids and welcome their families. (White parents already have this.)”

    White parents may have this, but do they really want this? But in any event, people want lots of things, but I think if you ask parents of any race, if they had a choice between a good teacher, and a teacher who bore some resemblance to their kid, let’s just say a fair number of them would opt for the former.

    3) They want schools to stop over-suspending their children as well as over-identifying them for special education.

    Maybe, but I think they also want schools to stop addressing issues by categories, and otherwise using statistical models which however pretty they might look in the research papers, don’t tell you much about a specific kid. Sure, mealy mouthed liberal that I am, we have to be aware of cultural differences, but the simple reality is that a teacher in a classroom is always going to know what’s going on with a specific kid than a legislator in St. Paul, or some standardized text creator who resides in a post office box somewhere in California.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/02/2015 - 07:48 pm.

      Rational

      Your comment seems the most rational so far, so I will hop in here:

      1) Currently the Ed MN lobby has ensured that the highest paid Teachers do not work in the schools who need them most. Hopefully this can be changed, yet the Liberals keep demanding that the Teacher wants be placed above the student needs.
      http://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2014/03/mps-data-teachers-raise-resource-equity-questions

      2) I agree that parents and students just want the best Teachers in their schools. Yet Ed MN and their Liberal supporters are fighting hard to ensure that Teacher Performance is not measured and/or used in staffing, lay off or compensation decisions.

      Politicians who want to put the students first are working to stream line Teacher licensing in MN and ensure it is EASY for great Teachers from other states to come and work here. Ed MN etal of course are fighting this because it puts downward pressure on wages, etc. Personally I think the poor families would like to have more equally capable Teachers in their schools, even if it meant those Teachers were paid a bit less.

      3) Recently I heard of a poor elementary Black child who threatened to slit the throat of another student for verbally challenging them. The Parents asked what would be done about the incident. The Principal said that nothing would happen since the bully was Black and the district was working to curb detention, suspension, expulsion statistics for minorities.

      Let me repeat, almost all parents want their child in a safe learning environment. The idea that children are not being equally punished based on behavior is not going to get us there.

      4) I am adding one. This is the worst causation statement in the history of Liberal scape goating. “Educational “success” has historically been defined and predicted most accurately by the socioeconomic status of the parents. ” While this is true, it is terribly misleading since it implies that if we gave these Parents more money their children would do better, which is not necessarily the case.

      The reality is that the causes for the Parents being POOR, lead to their children not being academically successful. Some key causes would include the parents are likely to be academically challenged, have poor communication skills, single parent household, believe in entitlement vs work, poor parenting skills, had more children than they can afford, possible substance abuse issue, confront main stream American culture, etc. All of these negatively impact the kids, and many of these can not be fixed through money or schools/Teachers. However there are many improvements that can occur in a our schools to help more of the kids more often.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/03/2015 - 09:10 am.

        “Recently I heard . . .”

        Care to provide a source for that anecdote? Because it has all the earmarks of one of those “white people are the real victims of racism” rumors that flit about.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/03/2015 - 06:00 pm.

          Actually

          This occurred recently in a Twin Cities school to a family I know. No this is not a distant email chain story. The parents simply do not want any negative retribution occurring to their family, so I keep the details very sparse.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/05/2015 - 12:04 pm.

            Very disturbing

            I would hope this is just an off-the-cuff remark of a disgruntled administrator, and not some (unwritten) policy choice.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/05/2015 - 06:17 pm.

              Consequences

              To me it seems like a natural consequence of arbitrarily deciding that one group of students should have the same “penalty” stats as another totally different group of students, and then setting policy to attain this goal. The Teachers I have heard from say it is getting harder and harder to get troubled kids out of the classroom, which is real bad for the Teachers and the students that want to learn.

              http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/283269711.html

              Not sure what to do with the really troubled kids, but keeping them in the classroom will surely destroy the schools that are already challenged. Parents who want their kids in a safe controlled learning environment will not tolerate it.

              By the way, the end of the above story is that the Parents of the threatened kid pulled their student from that school and found a “better” school. Which of course is a mixed blessing since their children are better off, but it means that the challenged school lost good students and a good family. Bummer for the kids / families still trapped in the challenged school.

  14. Submitted by Nathaniel Finch on 03/31/2015 - 09:27 am.

    Liberal

    I wish Ms.Mickelsen would stop making such a big deal about being a liberal. She can present her ideas and then each of can decide how liberal she is. Personally I don’t find her chosen profession of evangelist to the liberals a particularly appealing or useful one. If she wants to claim a spot in the community of liberals, she might stop beating them over the head at every opportunity. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

  15. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/31/2015 - 07:18 pm.

    What does Ta-Nehisi Coates have to do with it?

    Rachel says the research tells us:

    “… the strong link between poverty and poor student performance holds as poverty and income inequality is getting worse.”

    Ray says real world experience shows us:

    “Educational ‘success’ has historically been defined and predicted most accurately by the socioeconomic status of the parents. That little truism, which has been recognized for half a century at a minimum, dovetails fairly precisely with my experiences dealing with the parents of both low and high-achieving black students, and, not incidentally, low and high-achieving white and asian students, as well.”

    If that’s true, expecting educators to “solve the problem” via better planning, teacher evaluation strategies, getting or not getting rid of LIFO or union constraints, more charter schools and vouchers, more or less comprehensive testing, more or less local school board control, etc., is probably just a school of red herring.

    Because, as Rachel also points out, “What IS clear is that all of the ‘new’ education reform related to poverty stricken areas has failed to result in improvement.”

    Continual striving to find and implement educational process improvement is a great thing that is the “natural domain” of researchers and educators. But if what Rachel and Ray (and many others) are saying is true, thinking educators can, or expecting them to, “solve the problem” is misguided at best, or, at cynical worst, a calculated diversion from the type of thing Ta-Nehisi Coates points out so powerfully in the article Lynnell Mickelsen points to.

    Here’s an out-of-context, but pretty good clip that – even though it reflects what was happening in the blatantly immoral harshness of the “sharecropper south” – is not unrelated to what’s happening in America today in a codified-in-law, institutionalized way, on what may be a more subtle but grander-than-ever scale (see reams of criminal sentencing law and related ethnic impact statics, tax law and those that make it possible to be “Too Big to Jail”):

    “It was in these early years that Ross [a sharecropper] began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.”

    The broader robbery of today may not, in most cases, be armed, but to think it isn’t an alive and well governing principle is, if you’ll pardon the expression, delusional.

    Or, in terms of “raw incarceration” or not, as Bob Dylan put it one time:

    “Steal a little and they throw in jail. Steal a lot and they make you a king.”

    Get caught with a pocket or freezer bag full of drugs and kiss the free world good-bye for 10 or 20 years.

    Get caught defrauding millions out of tens or hundreds of billions, have the company (or the Citizens United person) you work for pay a fine, and start collecting next year’s $20 million raise-enhanced paychecks.

    Because that’s the way the laws our law makers have made work.

    People may not think that has anything to do with “institutional racism” (or “classism” or “tribalism”), and people may not think that’s what they’re advocating and voting for when they advocate for the policies and vote for the people that will ensure perpetuation of that kind of thing, but people may be mistaken.

    But what does any of that have to do with education?

    Beyond the obvious answer to the question of which of the parent’s kids – the person caught with the drugs or the legal fraudster – is most likely to do well in school and go on to have a prosperous enough life, there’s this…

    If, as everyone seems to agree, “education is the best investment in our future we can make,” and if, as Rachel and Ray point out, the primary cause of “student failure,” or “lagging,” is socioeconomic, then, obviously, the antidote is improvement of the socioeconomic status of those most affected.

    Too big? Too vague? Not specific enough? Too easy to just blow off as “Nothing any individual can do to about it,” etc.?

    Well, maybe. But how about considering the potential educational benefit of encouraging your legislative representatives to get behind this kind of thing:

    “Push begins to raise state welfare grants

    ““The stunning reality for the task force is that this grant has not increased since 1986,’ Webster said. ‘The grant in 1986 was $532 for a family three. Today it is also $532.’”

    http://blogs.mprnews.org/capitol-view/2015/02/push-begins-to-raise-state-welfare-grants/

    Standard bleeding heart liberal junk?

    “Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, is the chief author of a bill to enact the task force recommendations.

    “She said increasing the grants will help bring people out of poverty.

    “’This bill, I think is a good start,’ Franson said. ‘The cash assistance has remained flat since 1986, and the buying power of 1986 isn’t exactly the same as it is in 2015.’”

    “Franson said several other Republicans, including Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, and Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, have signed on to her bill.”

    I know. Knock ME over with a feather too. Mary Franson? Glenn Gruenhagen? Tony Albright (who has one of the better accounting minds in the legislature)?

    But when it comes to the idea of “loving your neighbor as you would yourself” or “the golden rule” – not to mention being able to think straight about much of anything, including your kid’s homework, test prep or next week’s school board meeting – how able would you and your family be to get by on $532/month cash and a couple hundred in SNAP/food stamps while you looked for work that pays that’s hard to find?

    And how about maybe backing off a little on the rhetoric and support for things like Pat Garofalo’s recently passed bill to “modify” the new minimum wage laws in order to hold down the incomes of waiters and waitresses (70% to 80% of whom are women whose real world average pay is about $8.50 per hour/$17,000 per year, including tips)?

    And maybe – just MAYbe – rethinking the wisdom of permanently cutting $300 million from the general fund (for the “tax free Transportation Stability Fund”) and $2 billion in tax cuts (most of which would almost certainly go to restore the “wholeness” of those impacted by the 2013 tax increases).

    Until business owners or “job creators” or boards of directors and share holders are ready to step up and start helping out by voluntarily sharing more of the productivity gains and profits with employees via increased wages (beyond begrudging the least “the market will bear”) that kind of thing may make for good election year political talking points, but if economic improvement for the parents of low-income at-risk kids is key to improving educational outcomes, it does nothing to make things better, but plenty to make sure it stays the same or gets worse.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2015 - 09:32 am.

      Understanding the problem

      I agree with your assessments here, Bill. If we keep focusing on the wrong issues, we’ll keep coming to the wrong solutions. While institutionalized racism is alive and well and a major hurdle for a lot of people of color, the main thrust of the infrastructure that holds it in place is economic. The laws that blatantly discriminate based on skin color have been replaced with a convenient substitute: discrimination based on poverty. It’s a little like opening a window after clipping a bird’s wings–sure, they’re technically free to leave…

      As for economic solutions that rely on financial subsidies of individuals with low incomes, that’s only a stopgap, and one that’s designed to hobble (if not cripple) those it “helps” up front. There is a narrow margin within which a person can work and still get help. You have to STAY poor to get help, and the help is a use it or lose it type of deal with an on/off switch that can’t be used to taper assistance. That is, you can’t scrimp and save enough to escape the poverty orbit because as soon as your bank account shows that you haven’t been spending every dime, you lose it. You’re forced to rely on it. You can make too much to get any assistance and still not afford “affordable” housing at $800-1000 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment. Good luck getting in on any of the income-based rent housing. Booked for years out.

      As a result of the poverty gap, kids whose parents are stuck at the bottom (and they really are stuck) are tethered to it, as well. It is extraordinarily hard to get out. I did. So, it can be done. But not without lots of tax payer subsidized help. If it wasn’t for a state funded scholarship, if I did manage to go to college, I’d probably still be paying off that debt. And if it wasn’t for grad student grants, which pay tuition and fees for grad students, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a PhD. I’m still paying off debts from grad school, but I’ll be done soon. In the meanwhile, I didn’t have kids (and probably won’t), which is a sacrifice for being able to get through undergrad and grad school in my relative youth. Instead, I pay plenty of taxes to repay the generosity (?) of prior tax payers and to subsidize the cost of education for other peoples’ kids. And yet, it’s not enough.

      Those that say that throwing money at the situation won’t help have ignored the strong and consistent relation between academic success and wealth. Money helps. A lot. Maybe throwing money at schools has a limited effect, but that’s because we haven’t addressed the underlying issue–poverty.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/06/2015 - 12:13 pm.

        Good Examples

        My friend from Ethiopia and you are good examples that there is plenty of help out there for people who are smart, want to work hard, make short term sacrifices, are disciplined, etc. He came here at 19 speaking no English and graduated as a Mech Engr from the U of MN by age 26.

        It takes a lot of self sacrifice, work and discipline to learn, change and escape the circumstances of one’s birth when surrounded by questionable role models. I greatly respect what both of you have achieved with the systems and funding that are in place.

        Now how do we get more young at risk children to follow in your foot steps?
        I don’t think giving their questionable Parents more money for nothing is the answer.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2015 - 03:55 pm.

          Wrong

          There is not “plenty” of help. I was one of a handful of students that had that scholarship in the entire state–lots of smart, hardworking kids didn’t make the cut. Not a big deal for those that can afford it, but it wasn’t need based. And if you think just anyone can get into grad school, you’re ignoring the facts. I failed twice to get in. It’s not that I wasn’t qualified, it was that there’s not enough room for all of those qualified. And, even at that, I work in a career that’s very different than many of my peers because there simply isn’t the type of funding for science research that there used to be. So…lack of jobs, even with a PhD.

          How do you get more young at risk children to follow in my footsteps? Provide more sustainable and reasonable support–or buy lottery tickets for them.

          Also, one the biggest indicators of success is if your parents are successful. So, make sure that successful people have the ability to successfully raise children. In other words, if you want successful people to have successful children, don’t make it so they have to sacrifice their childbearing years to succeed (and only if they’re lucky–literally). It’s not a short term sacrifice. With just a bachelor’s degree, I was “qualified” to do little more than mindless grunt work in a lab as opposed to a grocery store or big box chain, which differs only in the environment of work, not the pay. So, as lucky as I was to get an undergraduate degree, it was economically almost worthless. Add another 5.5 years onto that (plus a year for not being able to get in the first time around), and I graduated with my PhD in my late 20’s. Establish a career–mid 30’s. 15 YEARS out of high school, I was just starting to make money. I could have had kids instead. That’s a huge time investment because the system and our society is not kind to women who want to succeed, let alone those that started out less than financially secure.

          I appreciate that there are opportunities for new immigrants to succeed, but they’re often far different opportunities than those who have lived here their entire lives. The social and economic support is very different. They’ve already started out with the means to leave one country and enter another. That they are disproportionately successful is a selection bias, not proof that we have a great system that makes the American Dream attainable. And, let’s face it, some people have already written off the kids of the poor parents, whereas they view an immigrant as having already made a smart choice by leaving their native country and moving to a vastly superior (/sarcasm/) country in which to make a new life. Because ‘Merica.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/07/2015 - 12:44 pm.

            T3

            “Provide more sustainable and reasonable support”

            Rachel, Please elaborate how to do this without the money being siphoned off by bureaucrats, unions, free loaders, etc. We keep spending more with questionable results.

            One of my readers insists that vouchers directly to the kids is the only way to bypass folks who mean well, but cost too much for the results they generate. He believes that giving the parents the responsibility for spending the voucher and picking the school will make the questionable Parents more responsible. Thoughts?

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