Stop Giving Reform a Bad Name

A year ago, someone (let’s call her Amy) told me about a conversation she had with a school reformer.  In short, the conversation was about why (and ultimately how) Black children need to be controlled.  It was argued that on their own, they did not have the motivation or the character necessary for achievement.  It is for this reason that this reformer’s “no-excuses” and “high-standards” approach to education works.

Now for the record, I did not solicit this information.  I was only engaged in the conversation because we were talking about the need to give learners multiple literacies for student empowerment.  Amy, out of frustration with the other conversation, argued that empowerment was not happening in the current local movement for reform.  That instead, there was some form of wide-spread shackling that was happening with the soul and spirit of disadvantaged children in the city.

I winced when she said these things but not because I didn’t believe her.  As reported in the findings of recent research, one of my participants (working at a choice school) echoed these same sentiments.  When asked if he thought student power was an important part of the learning process, he said yes.  But, he felt that his students (almost exclusively Black) could not handle it.  It was his position that student power needed to be earned.  And his students, because of how they have been influenced by their “neighborhoods” did not come to the classroom with the competencies that warranted the access and use of student power.  He felt that they could not handle it responsibly.

Now, I don’t know how other people sift through these words, but to me, when they are decoded, they say exactly what my colleague had pointed out in conversation with the reformer. In all, it shows that there are some in the current school reform movement that believe that Black children (and other students from marginalized spaces) need to be reprogrammed before they can have agency… before they can exercise their most basic condition in the human experience.

During my conversation with Amy, I began to consider that this thinking, the thinking that Black children need to be humanized before they can access their humanity, is not some type of fringe ideology.  For this person to speak so candidly to Amy about the little regard that is held for the true personhood of Black children shows that there was a presumption of support in saying this.

Usually if you say something that you feel doesn’t have wide spread support, you preface your words with, in my opinion (or something to that effect).  But to do so as unashamedly and without hesitation (as was reported), indicates a comfort level based on an assumption of being of the majority opinion.

And, if this assumption of being right is more widespread than we publically understand (in the devaluing of Black personhood), then I wonder if some are treating the reform movement as a new form of colonialism… a political practice of programming poor and Black children for the continued advancement of the majority.

For a long time, I identified as a reformer and while I no longer carry the name, it could be argued that I still am.  Regardless of my pro-union/ pro-teacher position, my work in leadership once positioned me as a charter school developer.  You see, I am ultimately a critical pedagogue.  As a critical pedagogue, I am interested in improving the political dynamics associated with the instruction of marginalized learners… wherever they learn.  Because of greater freedoms granted (as the result of greater accountability), charter schools at one point (particularly early on in the movement) appeared to offer a unique opportunity for instructional change and innovation.

But in all of my dressings as a reformer, I stand firm that my work is not in the devaluing of little human people. It is in fact the opposite! Through my empowerment framework, their inherent value is centralized, protected and promoted!  Through their personhood, their agency becomes the primary means in which learning and achievement is pursued. This personhood and agency is not the cornerstone of many schools pursuing the achievement of low-income Black children (watch this video to learn more about the mistreatment of “achievement”).

Reform is not about repurposing already established inequities. It should be about expanding the field of educational attainment so that all children can have access to their full humanity and are adequately equipped with the literacies they need for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

If the unashamed, devaluing of Black personhood indicates a majority opinion, I guess I can understand why many social justice advocates have turned sour on the word reform.  But, I will not lose sight of its innovating promise.  Instead, I will push back against those who give it a bad name.

It is my hope that Amy and people like Amy (who have access to these inside conversations) can push back as well… directly to the face of those who feel entitled to outwardly spew nonsense about the inherent value of black children.  Because secretly telling me is one thing– outwardly telling them is another!


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