The Miseducation of the Education System

Former First Lady – and *fingers crossed* the future Madame President – Michelle Obama once said,

“Empower yourself with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise.”

We tell our students that the education system is the gateway to a successful future. Classroom posters tout quotes from everyone – from Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr. – celebrating the power of education and, in a way, the public education system. FREE AND EQUAL EDUCATION FOR ALL. Isn’t that the American way?

It is – if you’re white. With Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared segregation in the public school system was unconstitutional and that all students – no matter what skin tone – would sit next to each other in classrooms across America. Of course, the integrated education model was the white public school system, and our students of color – especially our black students – were forced to conform to that system. A system that persists in public schools even to this day.

And although education was once commended as the “great equalizer,” the statistics prove otherwise. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 79% of black students graduated on time compared to 89% of their white counterparts. Although this gap doesn’t seem monumental, when you break down the graduation rates by state, the numbers paint a different America: in the District of Columbia, 89% of white students graduated on time, compared to only 69% of black students. Minnesota saw similar gaps, with only 67% of black students receiving their high school diploma, far behind their white peers (88%).

Of course, we could rationalize a number of reasons for the gaps in achievement but many times, our excuses place the undue burden on our students and not enough on ourselves as educators. We’re quick to point our fingers all around us, but struggle and fail to acknowledge our failures in the advancement of students of color.

Let me state for the record that I am a white, upper middle class, cis gender woman, and with now 15 years in education, I recognize my privilege and my role in the problem of this fractured system. But we, as white people, need to be a part of the solution to create a truly inclusive, accessible, and rigorous education for our students of color.

How do we recreate education? How do we change a system that seems stubbornly stagnant and stubbornly white? In the words of Nike, “Just do it.”

Actual Diversity Training for All Staff

Being an educator means you never stop learning and growing in your profession. Every year, we’re thrown into a sea of trainings – Common Core, AP, special education, sexual harassment, bullying, school safety, mandating reporting, blood pathogens, social emotional learning…. Many of these trainings are a one-time shot, a “check-box” to say we covered it, and more often than not, they’re just an online program that you simply let play out in the background while you get your “actual” work completed.

We cannot do that to our students of color.

Educators and school staff need actual diversity training, where it is on-going, comprehensive, and intensive and not another online session sandwiched between videos on sexual harassment and how to clean up blood in your classroom. We need to have our beliefs, our politics challenged. We need to feel uncomfortable, recognize that we bring our own white privilege, biases, and prejudices into the classrooms. Understand why saying “All lives matter” hurts our black students.

We need to actually learn what it means to be an ally and not just call ourselves one.

Expand the Hiring Pool

I love being in education, and apparently so do a bunch of white people. NCES found that 79% of teachers in America are white. Let that sink in just for a moment.

Bottom line: schools need to hire more black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian teachers, school counselors, and administration. Students of color, especially our black students, need to see representation in front of the classroom and in that front office. Less than 25% is not going to do the job.

While I understand that this change may be a challenge for many school districts, it is a challenge that they must face. Our higher institutions need to make credential programs financially accessible to students and not just the elite, white upper middle class who can afford to pay tuition or college loans. School districts need to collaborate with these universities to incentivize POC hiring. Public schools can no longer just idly sit back and wait for a qualified POC to apply for an open position. They have to make it happen.

Support Cultural and Ethnic Student Representation on Campus

Activities are an essential part of life on a school campus, especially school clubs. They allow students to explore current and prospective interests while simultaneously connecting with peers outside the classroom. Club participation also provides students the opportunity to explore their own identity, their own sense of self-worth.

That is why it is beyond imperative that groups like Black Student Union, Hispanic Youth Leadership Council, and Gay Straight Alliance exist on our school campuses. These organizations promote pride, agency, and community. Studies have shown that when students feel connected to their campus, they are more likely to succeed. Not just earn a diploma, but actually thrive in their schools and beyond.

I do know that some of my fellow white colleagues and peers would say, “Well, doesn’t something like BSU promote segregation?” To that, I ask what is it we are so afraid of acknowledging about ourselves? Why do we not want our students to feel pride in who they are? Do we feel that our students of color do not deserve that sense of community and agency? What makes you feel so threatened?

Free Your Mind (and Your Curriculum)

While POC representation is essential in our school’s staff and organizations, it is imperative that our curriculum also reflects that diversity. As teachers, we tend to get possessive of our lessons, as if they are our own children. We birth them, raise them, instill within them our personal beliefs and ideology. More often than not, we cling to them and struggle to abandon them, even when they are no longer effective or even inclusive.

Although we’d like to believe today’s curriculum has evolved to include more voices of color, it is blatantly obvious that we still cling to the whitewashing of our learning materials. Many of our history classes devote an entire year to learn about white US history or European history, and “world history” courses focused predominantly on European history and its impact on foreign countries. Black history tends to be saved for a week-long unit in January or even February, to acknowledge Black History Month. Typically, the focus shifts solely to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech, perhaps even Rosa Park’s arrest. We “don’t have time” to focus on other black political leaders and key figures: Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Angela Davis.  Furthermore, courses that could expand inclusion on campus, such as ethnic studies, tend to be considered by school boards as “controversial,” and are dismissed for “not aligning with common core standards.” 

The responsibility for diversity in curriculum doesn’t just fall to our history classes, but to our English classes as well. Our students of color tend to see limited representation in required reading. For every black author on these lists, there are at least 20 white – usually dead male –  authors. Typically, our novels that do address race are written by white authors, specifically Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While they were revolutionary and thought-provoking for their time, we continue to present them in our classrooms without acknowledging or even teaching about their problematic nature.

I am guilty of this. As a former English teacher, I devoted an entire unit on teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, cultivated lessons that “taught” my students the civil rights movement, Jim Crow Laws, and what life was like in the 1930s for black people. I emphasized the heroic nature of Atticus Finch, Miss Maudie, and Boo Radley, perpetuating the faulty ideology of white saviors. I expressed sadness over Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict and subsequent murder at the hands of white prison guards. We “glanced over” the n-word or change the pronunciation, so that we could keep reading, never considering what seeing that word would do to my black students. Essentially, I put a bandaid over a gushing wound and thought I could stop the bleeding. I was wrong.

White educators, we have to do more in our education system and if we do not, we are no better than a president who hides in a bunker and uses a church as a backdrop for a photo op.

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