Seeking Equity: Not “If,” But “How” and “Why”
Under President Obama, the education reform agenda has intensified, rising on the foundation built by President George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The tensions in the debate concerning the quality of U.S. public education and the reforms needed have created two broad camps that I have identified as "No Excuses" Reformers and Social Context Reformers:
"'No Excuses' Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, 'No Excuses' Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.
"Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security."
Social Context Reformers tend to place social justice at the center of their views of why we must support public education and how we need to reform that system to fulfill the promise of universal education. "No Excuses" Reformers have begun to claim their commitment to the free market is also a commitment to social justice. As well, "No Excuses" Reformers, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (as well as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee), hold the power in the debate, often rendering Social Context Reformers to the role of reactionaries.
Since "No Excuses" Reformers have the bully pulpit, key elements of the "no excuses" ideology drive policy (Race to the Top [RTTT]) and indirectly (as well as directly) reinforce non-public initiatives such as Teach for America (TFA) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters. Much of the stated focus of the "No Excuses" Reformers has become children living in poverty and children of color (while other marginalized groups have remained marginalized, such as special needs students and English language learners).
"No Excuses" Reformers claim to be seeking social justice for children living in poverty and frame that commitment within mantras such as "poverty is not destiny" and "poverty is not an excuse." Recently, I have discovered that "No Excuses" Reformers have added a new claim: Progressive educators (their pejorative term for Social Context Reformers) are not helping impoverished and minority students; they are in fact the cause of those children's failure.
While engaging with a "No Excuses" Reformer in a discussion thread for an Education Week blog (Ravitch's concern about President Obama's understanding of RTTT) and later on Twitter, I was confronted by the charge that Lisa Delpit had put people of "my ilk" (as I was characterized, suggesting falsely that I am a progressive) in their place. First, from 2006:
"What I found most interesting was the fact that she highlighted some scathing comments by other black teachers who seem to view so-called 'progressive' education as a liberal racist ploy."
And more recently, a charge against
Alfie Kohn's Education Week
piece confronting the "pedagogy of poverty"
stated that Delpit's work refutes Kohn's positions and supports the "no excuses" ideology:
"She eventually adopted more traditional approaches—the same approaches that most of her African American colleagues used. Probably including some techniques that high-performing charter schools like KIPP still use today."
If the "No Excuses" Reformers are in fact presenting the true avenue to social justice, then Social Context Reformers are not simply offering a failed alternative, but they are, as the two commentaries above suggest, perpetuating inequity.
The problem, however, is that "No Excuses" Reformers are making two key errors. First, the debate about seeking equity is not about "if," but about "how" and "why" we address inequity in our schools as a confrontation to inequity in our society. Next, simply put, they are grossly misrepresenting Delpit's work in order to offer false evidence for their own corrosive ideology.
Not taken out of context, Delpit has established herself as a strong opponent of standardized testing, a key element of the "no excuses" ideology, and she has clearly refuted any claims that her work justifies traditional practices:
"I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.
"And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents 'uncaring' when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, 'But that’s the school’s job.' What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities."
While the "No Excuses" Reformers mask their racist and classist assumptions (dramatized in the passages from Middlesex
above) as teaching children from poverty and children of color middle-class codes, that masking helps avoid the central questions of "why" and "how" to achieve the emancipatory goals voiced by Delpit.
Unlike Buck and Petrilli, Monique Redeaux explains that Delpit rejects the deficit perspectives found among "No Excuses" Reformers (including self-proclaimed poverty expert Ruby Payne):
"At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the 'culture of poverty' (Payne) and the 'culture of power' (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other 'culture of poverty' advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the 'culture of power' perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.
"When Delpit began her work on 'other people’s children' she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for 'vindicating' teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to 'skills-based instruction' was the 'useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms' and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the 'trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.' At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the 'disenfranchised underworld.'
"The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the 'hidden rules.' Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the 'way things are,' especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities."
"No Excuses" Reformers offer no excuses for the norms of middle-class American values that still ignore, allow, and perpetuate a wide range of inequities—racial, social, gender. For "No Excuses" Reformers, education is a tool of the elite to train the masses to conform to a world that maintains the current status quo.
As extensions of "no excuses" ideology and mechanisms for indoctrinating certain children to be "just like white people," TFA and KIPP are preying on and perpetuating inequity—not confronting the codes in hopes of realizing equity.
Social Context Reformers view social justice as a revolutionary goal; thus, education is offering all children the same opportunity to come to know the world in order to change it.
Let's turn now to another work of fiction, the Showtime series Shameless. This American version set on the South Side of Chicago of a British series looks at the world of inequity and poverty through the Gallagher family. In Episode 5 of Season 2, Veronica, a neighbor of the Gallaghers, is caring, with her husband Ken, for a foster child, Ethel, who is still a child but has had a child while living in a polygamous relationship and a disturbingly sheltered life. Ethel begins to experience the complex real world and part of that includes a budding relationship with a young African American who has fathered a child.
When Ethel is going to the park to meet this boy, Veronica tells her: "Anybody offers you candy, that’s code for crack. Apple jacks, crunch ‘n munch, hotcakes, jellybeans, fries, caviar...all crack."
And this is yet another powerful message about the nature of codes and the privilege and oppression inherent in those codes. While the "No Excuses" Reformers seek to further entrench the codes of middle-class America, they are misrepresenting both the norms of language (so-called standard English does Ethel less good than the idiom of the streets, for example) and the possibility that norms should be confronted and changed.
Social justice is, again, an act of revolution. "No Excuses" Reformers are seeking to conform some children (not theirs) to the norms that have given the powerful their status of privilege. To apply Calliope/Cal's confession to today, "No Excuses" Reformers are sending the message that children of color and children in poverty will be embraced "if they would only act normal"—and that normal is for the "No Excuses" Reformers to decide, but not for any child to question.
Lisa Delpit's work does not put Social Context Reformers in our place (her message is the message of that argument), but "No Excuses" Reformers are in fact seeking to use schools to put other people's children in their place.
That is inexcusable.