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Race and Reform

While running on the treadmill, I notice an “inspirational” story about education reform. Though the volume is on mute, the videos present a clear message: African-American and Latino kids walking orderly down the halls, teachers with huge grins greeting them at the doors, desks in rows as students begin the learning process.

It’s set in a city forged by segregation, so the whole story begins with layers of a racialized narrative. A woman who calls herself the CEO of this charter school talks about higher standards, ten hour work days, a no-nonsense approach to discipline. She calls it an act of social justice.

Words flash over the propaganda report:
Gang Infested Neighborhoods
Dedicated Teachers
10-11 Hour School Days, plus certain Saturdays
Preparing Students for College

As they interview a teacher, I begin to read the subtitles and notice the phrase, “Help the students see that there is more to the world than this ghetto.”

This isn’t reform. This is colonialism. This is imperialism. This is Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” in a minority neighborhood. It’s the story of outsiders who believe they know what is best for the community and who move in to try to fix something that is not broken – or at least not any more broken than those trying to fix it. The solutions lack humility. The relationships are not horizontal.

This is not a “charter school problem.” I see this issue in public schools as well and it bothers me. It’s the idea of stereotyping a community that you do not know on a deep level. If the school’s neighborhood is anything like the neighborhood where I teach, it’s more nuanced. Broken families? Perhaps. But also an amazing support network of extended families that look out for one another. High crime? True. But none of them stole millions from the American people and got a bailout as a result.

I’ve been in the homes. They can be a beautiful refuge of authenticity where my students learn to cook and clean and fix a car and solve a problem and read a book. Don’t assume that poverty always means people are of a lower moral standing or that families are completely broken.

If these students were middle class, how would people react to schools where students were gone for 11 hours a day? If these children were middle class, how would our communities respond to the wealthy using words like “infested” and “crime” and “a better way?”

Education reform cannot ignore issues of race and ethnicity, social justice and colonialism. Pundits cannot treat the topic of change as thought it occurs in a cultural vacuum. Reform cannot ignore the realities of racialized narratives and the history of systemic injustice in our schools. Reform has to begin with listening. It has to start with a conversation. And before we can even start to figure out how schools can change the surrounding communities, the conversation just might need to start with the words, “I’m sorry” followed by collaborative solutions that respect rather than demonize the community.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “Race and Reform

  1. I’m glad you brought this up, because I don’t know how many reformers take this issue seriously.

    As a student of colonial and postcolonial history, one of my favorite books is “Wretched of the Earth” by Franz Fanon. During the 1960s, Fanon, a psychologist, was an astute medical and sociological observer of the impact French colonialism had on the psyche of Algerians.

    I recently reread this book, and was astounded by the extent Fanon would have probably agreed with the critique on the type of reform you mention in your post. In his early days, Fanon was himself an assimilationist. He believed that the path towards justice involved the education of wealthy colonized peoples in the ways of the colonizers. He thought that superior education, appropriated cultural values, and mainstream political involvement would solve the problems oppressed people faced.

    After seeing the racism in colonial urban areas and observing the effects such individual and systemic treatment had on Algerians, Fanon was convinced that oppression needed to be analyzed to from the perspective of the oppressed, and that assimilation was not the answer. Even if some were to be successful, it would be at the expense of others, as well as the social fabric of society.

    I don’t think it is unfair to read this as an allegory to our current situation. Just because these reformers care doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to be dangerous. I don’t think it means that they are dangerous, but I think the conversation needs to happen more. Wanting to “save someone’ from themselves, their culture, or their environment is not justification in and of itself. The British, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Belgians, and the Germans all gave these arguments themselves, and many good people were convinced they needed to help in the effort.

    I also don’t think “intent” really matters here, especially since this very conversation is not a part of the conversation on urban ed reform.

    This all speaks to how dangerous the bifurcation of this movement is. “You’re either with us, or against us” is a dangerous mentality. “You either care about urban schools, or you don’t. If you care, you’ll care in the way we do.”

    Thanks for bringing this to the table John.

    Posted by mrsenorhill | November 30, 2010, 11:21 am
  2. Have you checked “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden”? (

    I had a chance to see the screening at the Vancouver International Festival and filmed the Q&A with the director afterwards. I posted the videos on YouTube and wrote about it here:

    You should also check which came about after the film director, Carol Black, with whom I started email correspondence, shared a thought-provoking article with me.


    Posted by kima | November 30, 2010, 11:26 am
  3. Hey John, This is awesome, and something many of us have been saying about this “kind” of reform (KIPP-style schools, “no excuses” schools they are also called) for a long time. Mrsenorhill is absolutely right on to bring in Fanon, and I would also add Albert Memmi’s superb classic, The Colonizer and the Colonized, about the psychology of colonization.

    Since one of my fundamental issues is that of control–that the system of education we have was designed, at its center, to control and colonize students (and therefore their teachers as well)–how would you suggest bringing this issue to the center?

    I recall a memorable visit to Roxbury Prep Charter School, in Boston which is the kind of school you describe: incredibly high test scores, some of the best “results” in all of the state of Massachusetts, where children line up silently in the hallways and discipline is sharp and excuse-less. Almost all of the children at this school are poor and non-white. It is the darling of many grantors, national improvement policy organizations, and wealthy donors. When I was visiting, with a group of upper-middle class white folks, most of them loved it. Would they send their own children there? No, they said.

    To your point.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 3, 2010, 11:51 am
  4. Hello John,
    My name is Eloise Martin and I am a student at the University of South Alabama.

    Reading your post made me realize how sometimes we judge people from where they come from. We don’t give them a chance to show us that they are better than where they are from.
    When you mentioned that “Reform has to begin with listening. It has to start with a conversation” it made an impact on me. We need to give people a chance to express themselves, and sometimes they just need to be heard.
    I really enjoyed reading your post.

    Posted by Eloise Martin | December 5, 2010, 7:19 pm
  5. John,

    You are spot-on with this post. We essentially teach children in urban settings that there is something inherently wrong with their way of life and that they don’t need to look up to their parents and family members. Many of my students have more responsibility on their shoulders than any middle class student could ever imagine, but none of these responsibilities help them be successful in school.

    I think what you describe as imperialism is the elephant in the room. “We know what’s best for you.” Why we aren’t educating children to stay in their own neighborhoods instead of leave them is beyond me. We teach children to leave “the ghetto” and then wonder why the cycle of poverty continues. We need to teach them how to use their talents to grow and sustain their own neighborhoods and we need to value what they value while understanding that the challenges they face are real.

    It’s a tough line, and it’s an important discussion. Thanks for starting it.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | December 6, 2010, 10:24 pm
    • Thought-provoking post and comment, John and Mary Beth.

      I think this is an endemic problem and one more visible in, but not unique to, urban schools. While my suburban public education offered me opportunities aplenty, it did not help me get invested in my community. There was definitely a message embedded in the hidden curriculum: if you don’t leave and go to a top tier school, you’re not good enough. Schools everywhere hate a townie.

      Schools have to stop being about what students can’t, and should never have to, be. They need to be about students and their learning. Frankly, I think sectors outside public education will, and have, figured this out first. Our teacherly intransigence in seeking outside help may be giving us the myopic national leadership we don’t want. Just as we we resent “outsiders” meddling in “our” affairs, I’m sure “outsiders” resent being treated as such. I think there are leaders out there that we’re discouraging from helping us, and, therefore, we have national leaders we have. If ever there was a reason to reassert local control of schools, it’s the vision gap between our best local leaders and standardized host of national leaders singing test-prep hallelujahs.

      I think teachers throughout the system have to find the right kind of shared and distributed ownership to broadcast a compelling message of authentic urban school reform; I’m not sure we can do it from a position of combatting the system; I wonder if we might entice the leaders who share our vision to share our work and take on the heavy lifting of creating the opportunities for teaching and learning that we want.

      If we don’t, we’ll face brain drain when the better resourced, more magnet-like corporate schools start opening up. Imagine Microsoft educating and employing you from cradle to grave, providing you with the best computing available as you program your way through k12 right into a corporate unit with no college loans attached. This is part of what we public school teachers are up against, and I think we need a plan – and the plan definitely involves giving students in urban schools the means and opportunities to make a difference in their lives and communities.

      Check out @irasocol’s “Designed to Fail” series, which is the best longform critique of colonialism in American public education that I’ve read.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 7, 2010, 7:14 am


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