Is Education Reform a Matter of Cosmetics?

Last year, I was invited into a local radio station in Milwaukee to record my views on the state of Black children in Wisconsin.  Here is what I said…

In a statement about capitalism and democratic socialism, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had this to say:

You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry….

It is in the sentiment of Dr. King’s words in which I not only processed the “Race for Results” report by the Annie Cassie Foundation, marking Wisconsin as the worst place in the nation for black children, but I processed people’s reaction to it as well!  The state of black children in Wisconsin, in the nation for that matter, is without a doubt tied to the socioeconomic and political state of black adults.  The fact is that 40% of black families in Wisconsin live below the poverty line.  The unemployment rate is almost twice as high for blacks as it is for Whites.  Black men AND women serve as a perpetual (almost guaranteed) market to secure occupancy in the prison system.  And, schools that predominately serve black children restrict education to remedial/test-based concepts, ultimately preparing them for an industry that no longer exists.  Many of these conditions were found in this 2014 study but they were also discussed in reports published 2013 and 1980.

The fact that these conditions persist almost makes this report and reactions to it superfluous.  Critical race theorists argue that the state of black Americans is a matter of social-structural design.   In order to make real improvements for black children at the micro level, change must occur at the macro level.  And, as suggested by Dr. King, no real change is going to occur at the macro level if economic incentives embedded in social-structural inequities are not removed.  Based on a recent study produced by the University of Washington, discrimination occurs as the result of favoritism—not as the result of hostility or hatred.  Social-structural conditions that maintain adverse experiences for black children in Wisconsin dating back to 1980 (at least) are not necessarily embedded in racism (although this could be rightfully challenged).  Instead, these conditions are embedded in favoritism.  Until we disrupt policies, systems, and paradigms that give economic advantages to people in which we favor, we will maintain the structures that continue to put black youth (and other marginalized children) at a disadvantage.

For those of us that used the “Race for Results” report to indict schools, families, industry and even government as the cause to the problem, it is time that we move beyond micro-level causation.  Truly, it is at the macro level, where attitudes, beliefs and paradigms persist, that creates advantages for some and disadvantages for others.  For those who want to look externally to lay blame, we should try looking inward at self.  The very essence of our experience has resulted from the social-structure that creates dismal conditions for Wisconsin’s black children!  If we want to disrupt their disadvantage, we may want to try disrupting our privilege. 

I have been reflecting on these words a lot lately as the whole premise of Black Lives Matter continues to move. I think about those from both inside and outside of the community who have taken on this work and wonder about the location of privilege and the disruption of it as well.  Specifically within education reform discussions, there are those willfully engaging in black lives matter discourse as a way to further an agenda; all along, maintaining their access and privilege to the very conditions that have marginalized black and brown communities in the first place.

This makes me think: What are we doing? In terms of ed-reform for black, brown and poor children, what really are we doing?  And sometimes, my response is a dismal: Nothing. Until we are willing to mess with “captains of industry,” it is possible that any effort to reform education is simply cosmetic.


5 thoughts on “Is Education Reform a Matter of Cosmetics?

  1. This is brave, truth-telling writing. Data can tell a lot about current and past states of affairs. Yet when we truly look at our schools, our children (of all colors), at the discrepancies in outcomes, then your question resonates especially loudly: what are we really doing? And then we must recognize how fragmented and segregated that “we” is in both word and practice. Whose interests are served best and first reflects who holds and maintains power. That’s not a mystery in our society. The cosmetics of school reform paint the picture of looking busy while accomplishing little where the need is most essential and urgent. I wish I had more positive uplifting thoughts to share. Facing the truth, however, serves us better than pretending that we’ve come further than we actually have. Thank you for being honest and questioning our actions at their core.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chills. What an excellent piece. I have two favorite chunks.

    “Black men AND women serve as a perpetual (almost guaranteed) market to secure occupancy in the prison system. And, schools that predominately serve black children restrict education to remedial/test-based concepts, ultimately preparing them for an industry that no longer exists.”

    This is something I saw (and took part in for a time) while teaching in South East, D.C. The preparation for an industry that no longer exists is real. I’d also add that the remedial/test-based pedagogy enforces a high level of control and regulation over children of color.

    and

    “Until we disrupt policies, systems, and paradigms that give economic advantages to people in which we favor, we will maintain the structures that continue to put black youth (and other marginalized children) at a disadvantage.”

    I’m always on the lookout for ways to do this effectively. Well said, and I look forward to continuing to read your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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