Friday, November 29, 2013

Putting Arne Duncan's remarks in context

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Arne Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

To understand why Duncan hit such a nerve, you need to consider the long and complicated role that racial politics have played in this debate.

The public face of the education reform movement has always been pictures of eager young African-American and Hispanic children. Not only has the movement been sold as a way of helping these children but people who object to parts of the reform agenda have often been accused, implicitly or explicitly, of not wanting to help children of color. This naturally has caused some resentment by those, such as myself, who disagree with many of the proposals and who have actually taught in places like Watts and the Mississippi Delta, but there are more serious sources of tension.

For starters, with certain notable exceptions, the leaders of the reform movement tend to be white or Asian (for example, "2012 members of TFA are 62 percent white and only 13 percent African American"). By comparison, the tenured and/or unionized teachers who have paid the highest price in terms of policy changes and school closures have been disproportionately African-American. Under these circumstances, you can imagine the reaction when education reformers make statements like “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”

(as a side note, Jay Altman is one of the best paid administrators in the city)

Even more troubling is the disconnect between the marketing and the actual focus of the reform movement. Though the defining image of the movement is of a reformer surrounded by a happy group of African-American or Hispanic elementary school students in brand-new charter school uniforms, almost none of the major reform initiatives are specifically targeted at helping these particular kids. Initiatives like Common Core and teacher accountability are being proposed for all schools. Sometimes reformers will argue that though these changes affect all students they will have their greatest impact on disadvantaged kids. Other times, they simply let their photo ops do the talking for them.

Even TFA, which was held up as the definitive program for helping kids in poor neighborhoods, is now focusing more on developing leaders and administrators and is actually providing teachers for areas like Chicago and even more notably Huntsville that have a surplus of highly qualified instructors applying for the jobs.

Perhaps people did read too much into Duncan's comments but, considering recent history, you can see how some might react badly to his suggestion that race was a factor in people's decision to criticize his proposals.

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