Monday, June 29, 2015

On the need for more educators of color & why affirmative action is not the issue

I have read and written a lot recently about racism and the intersection of racism and public education, and the need for more teachers of color and more diverse curricula in our schools. I have also had conversations with local leaders and decision makers here where I live in Hanover, Virginia, about the lack of educators and educational leaders of color and have participated in deep conversations on this topic in the course of my doctoral studies in Educational Leadership at VCU.

All of this has caused me to feel a need to articulate why it is important for ALL children in this country to be taught by people of color and to articulate responses to the arguments I have heard as to why the problem of a lack of teachers of color can't be helped or even as to why it's not a problem or how it will cause other problems.

So here goes:

Why is this important?
Leaders, decision-makers, educators, and teachers are in positions of influence and power. Due to a legacy of racism in our country, the majority of those positions are held by white people. This is unhealthy, unjust, and bad for our society. We need more people of color in those positions, to right power imbalances but also because those perspectives are sorely lacking in positions of power and influence throughout this country. Those perspectives are important not just to represent people of color but to make our institutions and white people less racist over time.

But many people of color just aren't as qualified for those positions.
Research has shown that many qualified people of color are routinely passed over for positions of influence and power due to institutional racism. Additionally, due to institutional racism, people of color haven't had the same opportunities as white people. I have yet to be convinced that people of color aren't just as qualified as white people for positions of power and influence, but if someone is convinced of this then my answer is: a) experience is a way to get qualifications and b) if it means getting to a proper balance of power and equal opportunity for all people, I am fine with putting people of color who might not seem as qualified on paper into more positions of power and influence. As far as I'm concerned, white supremacy is the greatest problem here. Nothing else even comes close.

But affirmative action isn't fair!
White people routinely get hired for jobs or accepted into more prestigious schools due to their family background, their connections, or wealth and not because any superior qualifications--they have benefited from a system of white supremacy for hundreds of years. Affirmative action is a drop in the bucket next to that. Furthermore, affirmative action happens at the end of things, after opportunities have already been denied. By the time "affirmative action" college admissions and hiring take place, those candidates of color that would benefit from affirmative action are just as well qualified if not better than white candidates, especially when you take legacy admissions and connections and wealthy into account. Furthermore, think of how many people of color have been denied opportunities for every one "affirmative action" hire or acceptance. If you really want to end affirmative action, then work to make it so everyone has the same opportunities starting before and at birth. If you want to end affirmative action, you have to end institutional racism.

How can you change this? Isn't it hopeless?
I don't know the answer to that. There are many different ways to change things. There are also many ways to bang your head against the wall. The best route to change is via groups that are local, organic, and led by the people the most impacted.

For me, it also helps first to consistently be aware of, learn about, and reflect upon my own position in society and upon my own implicit biases. I recognize that there is no escaping racism--it's everywhere in this country, whether you live in the North or South, East or West, and whether the racism is explicit or implicit. Second, it helps me to have hope that people can change, and to try to be non-judgmental (given that we all have work to do). This is going to sound corny, but I try hard to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

Some people probably are hopeless, like the ones who call Obama a socialist or who called for the dogs in Baltimore. I know I can't win with those people. I just don't want those people to win and so that's why I can't give in to hopelessness.

My thinking has been influenced by my upbringing but also by the writers in the #educolor collective, and the writer and blogger Ta-nehisi Coates, all exceptional thinkers that I highly recommend you read.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Recently, my representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, Hyland "Buddy" F. Fowler (R-Hanover, Spotsylvania, and Caroline Counties) posted on facebook that police in Baltimore should deal with protests by unleashing attack dogs on protesters:

This has made some rounds in the media. It was broken on Blue Virginia, and then was featured in Raw Story, Talking Points Memo, the Richmond Times-DispatchWashington Post, and in Michael Paul Williams' column in the RTD. An editorial  in the normally very conservative RTD called for Delegate Fowler to step down:
Fowler disgraces his party and his constituency. He is not a gentleman and ought not to be a delegate.

When his post was first publicized, Buddy deleted the posting and then issued an apology:

He later sent out an "explanation" in his constituent newsletter, stating that, "While I may not have used my best judgement in a recent Facebook post, my motives were sincere." He goes on to say, "It saddens me that there is a member of the Democratic leadership serving in the General Assembly who wrongly assumes my motives and attacks me publicly, all to advance his own agenda and worse, to raise money" and that Democrats and those who called him out "are focused on the wrong thing. This is not a black/white race issue, this about criminals taking advantage of a tragedy to commit crimes against innocent victims, most of whom are minorities."

Needless to say, the apology is not a real apology, not even close; it's a dodge and the explanation only explains that he has not come to grips with his own racism or with the racism that exists in our public democratic institutions. Are we taking advantage of this Buddy's being a racist to get him out of office because he's a racist? You bet we are.
This is not the first time that Buddy has posted something racist on his facebook page. About two years ago, he referred to President Obama as "Obammy," which is a racist play on words referencing "Mammy," a derogatory slavery-era term for older Black women.

The Hanover Democratic Committee's Black Caucus wrote him a letter explaining to him why the term was offensive and asking him to take it down, but the post is still there.

When things like this happen where I live, I fantasize about moving. After all, this is the person who represents me in the VA House--I have even met him and talked with him a few times. Furthermore, a majority of the people in my district voted for him!

But the thing is, this is my community, too. I live here, too. I contribute to the community, too. I pay taxes here, too. Big city liberals may look down on southern, conservative, rural areas, but communities like mine are also home to people of color and their allies. People in the south are trying to change systemic racism, too, and have been since the advent of slavery. And despite presumptions to the contrary, there is no shortage of racism in supposedly liberal meccas like California and New York City--I have lived in both places. So instead of looking down on and writing off rural, southern areas, support the people of color and anti-racism efforts in those areas. Help us get the resources we need to organize and get out the vote. Getting out the vote and winning local elections matters tremendously. And, speaking of what and who matters, Black Lives don't just Matter in urban, more liberal areas; they matter everywhere.

Here's how you can help:

1. VOTE. (Especially in local and state-wide elections. Register here.)

2. Especially if you are a Virginian, please contact Delegate Fowler and share your thoughts. (Here is the letter I wrote.) He votes on bills that impact all Virginians. His contact information is:

Capitol Office:
General Assembly Building
PO Box 406
Richmond, Virginia 23218
Office: 804-698-1055

District Office:
10321 Washington Highway
Glen Allen, VA 23059
Office: 804-305-8867

Email Address:

3. Donate to the Hanover County chapter of the NAACP, the Caroline County chapter of the NAACP, or the Spotsylvania County chapter of the NAACP. (I think it's always better to contribute directly to local groups, but if you're having too much trouble, here is a quick way to donate to the NAACP.)

4. Donate to the NAACP Youth & College Division which includes more than 700 youth councils, high school and college chapters involved in civil rights advocacy and organizing.

5. Donate to or volunteer with Buddy's opponent's campaign! Help get out the vote in Virginia's 55th district. Toni Radler is running against Buddy Fowler in the next VA-55 elections. She won a good percentage of the vote during the last cycle and she has a good chance of capturing more of it this cycle. She has spoken up about Buddy's racism and about institutional racism and she is also pro-women's rights, pro-gun safety, pro-universal healthcare access, and pro-public education.

6. Make a contribution to the Hanover Democratic CommitteeCaroline County Democratic Committee, or the Spotsylvania Democratic Committee (you could indicate that you want your donation to be directed to funding activities of the Committee's Black Caucus--I know that Hanover has one). These committees raise money to distribute to local candidates, such as Toni, and focus on getting out the vote.

7. VOTE.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Virginia Education Legislation

There are many interesting education bills before the Virginia legislature this year. I should have written a post exploring the most important ones and what position I take on them, but I didn't, so now I will feature the most, most important ones. Before I do that I want to thank the bloggers at VASB (Virginia Association of School Boards) and VEA (Virginia Education Association) for keeping us Virginia education policy geeks so well informed. For further information on various bills for the Virginia General Assembly and to find out who your legislators are and how to contact them, go here.

1. I'm going to start with the really, enormously huge stinker that is Senator Obenshain’s SJR256 (the House bill is HJR 526) which proposes a constitutional amendment that would take away decision-making power regarding the establishment of charter schools in school divisions from local school boards and hand it over to the nine-member Virginia Board of Education, which is appointed by the Governor. This is another version of the Opportunity Education Institution (which was found unconstitutional)--see what I think of that horror show here and here. Whatever you think of charter schools, whether or not to establish them is a decision for local communities and their school boards to make, not for a bunch of Governor appointees.

This initiative is an affront to democracy and an affront to local control, and the fact that the bill's supporters are using the democratic process and the state's own Constitution to undermine the democratic process and to disenfranchise citizens is offensive. If you contact your delegate and senator about any education matter this legislative session, make it this one. Unfortunately, it already passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote with all Republicans supporting it and all Democrats voting against it. I guess Republican State Senators in Virginia are opposed to local control. Contact your delegate and senator and tell them you oppose this bill.

2. HB1328 would require school principals to assess and report the immigration status of students at their schools. This is wrong on many levels. Immigration policy enforcement is not the job of school principals (and they have enough on their plates as it is). This would put school administrators in the role of immigration officers and pose a real ethical dilemma for them, and it would intimidate students and parents who are immigrants, keeping them from going to school. Contact your delegate and senator and tell them you oppose this bill.

3. The "Tebow" bill which permits home-schooled high school students to participate in public school sports at their local high schools passed the House 57 to 41 on Thursday. It was defeated last year. For my thoughts on this bill, see last year's post on VA GA education legislation. Then, contact your senator and tell them to oppose this bill.

4. The first bill is already dead and gone but it would have reduced the number of SOL tests from 29 to 17. The Senate Education and Health Committee rejected the bill on a 9 to 6 vote. Thanks to Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) for proposing  this. Please contact your delegate and senator and let them know you support this type of bill.

Monday, February 2, 2015

School immunization policy. And you. And me.

A little over five years ago, before I even had a separate education blog, I started what became a series of blog posts about vaccines. I began thinking about vaccines after a friend posted on facebook a mutual friend's piece published in Slate about the risks un-vaccinated people, especially kids, pose to her young son who had been diagnosed with leukemia not long before. I subsequently got into a conversation on the comment thread on facebook which included the article's author, some detractors, and some other folks    After posting about the facebook conversation, I wrote this follow-up post and then this one. After that, I wrote two more (see here and here).

I no longer blog as often or at such length. These days I also avoid such conversations on social media any more unless the person/people with whom I would converse and I have a history of productive, informative conversations.

I learned a lot from those conversations, readings, and writing I did, but it just seemed like something that would remain just that. Last semester, though, I took a course called "The Politics of Education" and one class assignment was we to research and present a particular policy and its role at national, state, and local levels. At first, I was going to write about the Common Core but then it just felt like I would be taking on too large of a topic (don't worry, I wrote about that for one of my final exam essays) and then it hit me: I could combine my interest in education policy and vaccines and do a presentation on school immunization policy! My professor was skeptical at first, but she let me go with it and I ended up really enjoying the process--and I got good feedback, too.

I wasn't able to give the presentation in class as had been the assignment, so I put together a power point which I narrated. So just to warn you--it's not exactly polished, I do rather drone on a bit, the slides are text-heavy (since I wasn't going to be speaking to my class or facilitate a Q & A session, I needed to convey the information such that the audience could read or listen to it or both), and it might not be fully up to APA standards, but with the current measles outbreak, it's a timely topic and I thought maybe someone would be interested in what I found out. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

When I grit on grit

A recent post up at Education Week chronicles a presentation that Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran (I'm a big fan) and Albemarle Assistant Director for Educational Technology and Innovation Ira Socol gave at the recent EduCon 2.7 conference in Philadelphia. It's is getting a lot of attention and some pushback.
"Grit" has in recent years captivated the imagination of educators and policymakers, leading many to embrace the idea that schools should seek to cultivate in their students a set of personality traits demonstrated by researchers to be closely tied to academic and personal success. 
Increasingly, though, critics are offering a different take, arguing that grit is a racist construct and has harmed low-income students by crowding out a focus on providing children with the supports they deserve and the more-flexible educational approach enjoyed by many of their more affluent counterparts. 

I don't believe that the concept "grit" is inherently racist or that Duckworth's work is racist per se. I won't get into too much of a discussion of this as cognitive psychologist Cedar Riener has a much better informed opinion than I do on this:

Research psychologists such as Duckworth would do well to understand the context (and yes, the narratives) that can drive public acceptance and promotion of their science. But equally, policymakers and interpreters of psychological science should seek to situate the scientific evidence within both its scientific context as well as its social and institutional context. The existence and power of traits does not deny the power of situational and motivational context.
But I do think the way the concept is often applied is racist, meaning that the assumptions that educators seem to make when deciding they must teach "grit" to certain kids (usually children of color who live in poverty) are racist. They imply that there is something lacking in the character of those students and that it is that lack which has determined those students' lack of power in our society. I would argue instead that social, economic, and institutional forces have largely determined these students' lack of power and that we should all work on fixing those.

I also have to admit that some of my disconnect with the concept of "grit" comes from the way the word was used when I was growing up in DC. The word "grit" meant to give someone a dirty look, as in, "Why are you gritting on me?" meaning, "Why are you giving me a dirty look?" So I always think of that.

In any case, these were the bits from the post that resonated with me and that are worth thinking about: 
Moran also argued that children from difficult circumstances often demonstrate considerable grit in their day-to-day lives, but those students' strengths are often not recognized by educators. 
And many at EduCon also contended that inside schools, grit is frequently, and wrongfully, conflated with compliance (e.g., completing homework assignments, paying attention in class, or taking standardized tests seriously.)  
"If you just push the idea of grit, you avoid a conversation about, 'To what end?'" said Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, the magnet high school in Philadelphia that hosts the annual conference.In order to avoid the "terribly racist" consequences of "the grit narrative," said Socol, the Albemarle County administrator, schools and districts should focus on creating an environment of "abundance," especially for students of color and children from circumstances of poverty. 
"There's [grit], and then there's the ability to get back up with the help of people around you, which is what the wealthy always do," said Socol in an interview prior to the conference. "The trick is in how you build a community around [students] and help them find the tools that will help them solve their problems."

UPDATE 1/29/2015, 2:45: I want to give Benjamin Herold credit for covering the session and for writing such a great post in the first place. Great work!

Monday, January 5, 2015

If we teach it, they will write it.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am a convert to the concept that literacy development (beyond decoding) is based primarily on knowledge, not skills. I used to think otherwise and even taught that way.

I write about this all of the time, especially in the context of ramped-up emphasis on reading tests, specifically in Virginia on Reading SOL tests (more on the recent ones soon). See this guest post at the Core Knowledge blog,and see this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, and this post chez moi.

So, yes, I am a fan of E.D. Hirsch's work on content-/knowledge-based curriculum as well as of Dan Willingham's cognitive-science-based rationale of such an approach. However, there's one place where I have to disagree: that we cannot change whose ideas we study.

From a recent article in Politico by Peg Tyre about Hirsch's influence (bolded emphasis mine):
Knowing the national language of culture, even haphazardly, has a vast, far-reaching and brutally cumulative impact on learning. For those who begin their education with sufficient stores of background knowledge, it forms a virtuous circle: They have higher levels of reading comprehension, which helps them understand the daily social, intellectual and political discourse, which in turn helps them obtain more background knowledge. Those who do not have it languish. To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”  
Which is where his List came in. To make it, Hirsch, along with two professors, scanned newspapers and popular journals for high-frequency concepts and then polled 500 professionals—lawyers and writers—to determine which of those concepts were the most crucial for cultural literacy. “I have a Spock-like mind,” he reflects. “I like to take things to their logical conclusion.”  
Still, critics loved to point out—and they were right—that it is long on the Founding Fathers and the English literary canon. Isn’t championing, say, John Locke over Lao Tzu a choice rife with unspoken values and cultural biases? Hirsch sighs. “I agree with those who say we have to change American culture, but we cannot do it at the expense of people at the bottom,” he says when I ask the inevitable question. “Vocabulary—and cultural literacy—is shaped by history. There is really nothing to be done about that.” OK, I say, that might have made sense in the 1970s, but what about now when the complexion of American public schools is changing? The population of Latinos is growing and this year, the majority of children enrolled in public schools are expected to be non-white. How can any dictionary of cultural literacy keep pace with such a rapidly changing world? Hirsch grows crisp. “Why do you think one’s color or ethnicity would affect one’s vocabulary? Without a doubt, Latino culture is having a big influence on America, and the language of culture will change around the margins. But educated conversation is still going on. And you want to make sure those kids—particularly those kids—have the tools they need to be included.”
Dan Willingham said something rather similar in his book Why Don't Students Like School (page 36):

We might ask ourselves, Which knowledge should students be taught? This questions often becomes politically charged rather quickly. When we start to specify what must be taught and what can be omitted, it appears that we are grading information on its importance. The inclusion of omission of historical events and figures, playwrights, scientific achievements, and so on, leads to charges of cultural bias. A cognitive scientist sees these issues differently. The question, What should students be taught is equivalent not to What knowledge  is important? but rather to What knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit? The question has two answers. 
For reading, students must know whatever information writers assume they know and hence leave out. The necessary knowledge will vary depending on what students read, but most observers would agree that a reasonable human target would be to read a daily newspaper and to read books written for the intelligent layman on serious topics such as science and politics. Using that criterion, we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males. From the cognitive scientist's point of view, the only choice in that case is to try to persuade writers and editors at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and so on to assume different knowledge on the part of their readers. I don't think anyone would claim that change would be easy to bring about. It really amounts to a change in culture. Unless and until that happens, I advocate teaching that material to our students. The simple fact is that without that knowledge, they cannot read the breadth of material that their more knowledgeable schoolmates can, not with the depth of comprehension.

While I agree with Hirsch and Willingham in how literacy develops, I disagree there's nothing we can do about whose history or culture we learn about or that changing whose ideas we learn about depends upon who writes and edits major newspapers. Obviously, writers and editors of newspapers have a lot of influence but there are other places of influence, like schools.

Hegemony as defined by Autumn Tooms Cypres (2013) is:
"a socio-political construct that explains how groups or individuals can maintain their dominance over other groups of individuals in a society via coercion rather than violence. This phenomenon is achieved through persuading those in the subordinate group to accept, adopt, and internalize the dominant group's definition of what is normal. This kind of veiled oppression is achieved via mechanisms such as the media and school curriculum, which are used to inculcate and maintain this viewpoint and the power of the dominant class."
If I say that there's nothing I can do, I am accepting and aiding unhealthy and imbalanced cultural hegemony of white males. Since schools and curricula (and not just newspapers and publishers) can help achieve hegemony then one of the best places to "change the culture" and over turn hegemony of white males is to start teaching the ideas and work of non-white males, too. Essentially, if we teach it, they will write it.

Jane M. Gangi, an associate professor in the Division of Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, and Nancy Benfer, an instructor in literacy and literature at Mount Saint Mary College and a fourth-grade teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School, have endeavored over the course of their careers to expand what is read in their classrooms and in the classrooms of the teachers they teach. They also have also worked with architects of Common Core, to see that a more diverse set of literature and authors are included with other works in Common Core recommended texts. They explain their reasoning here:
One is rooted in the proficient reading research. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers asked, “What do good readers do?” They found that good readers make connections to themselves and their communities. When classroom collections are largely by and about white people, white children have many more opportunities to make connections and become proficient readers. Appendix B of the CCSS as presented added to the aggregate that consistently marginalizes multicultural children’s literature: book lists, school book fairs and book order forms, literacy textbooks (books that teach teachers), and transitional books (books that help children segue from picture books to lengthier texts). If we want all children to become proficient readers, we must stock classrooms with mirror books for all children. This change in our classroom libraries will also allow children of the dominant culture to see literature about others who look different and live differently.
A second reason we must ensure that all children have mirror books is identity development. For African American children, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not enough. They must also see African-American artists, writers, political leaders, judges, mathematicians, astronauts, and scientists. The same is true for children of other ethnicities. They must see authors and illustrators who look like them on book jackets. Children must be able to envision possibilities for their futures. And they must fall in love with books. Culturally relevant books help children discover a passion for reading.
Unfortunately, no changes to the Common Core Appendix B have been made.

Education writer, edu-color activist, and Montgomery County Public School parent Melinda Anderson has advocated for public education to better serve students of color including recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, developing more culturally competent teachers, and teaching richer and more relevant curricula including literature by and about people of color:
The mirrors metaphor is strong and powerful. Writers of color started a Twitter campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks as a rallying cry to build momentum for greater diversity in literature. The need for people of color to see themselves reflected in the pages of books, in school curriculum and classrooms, and in leadership positions is real and inescapable. Equally, people of color need to be recognized for their excellence – it matters who we as a society lift up as worthy of recognition.
I would argue further that all students would benefit from a shift in the canon. As a K-12 student, some of my greatest experiences with literature were with works by authors of color: Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Ralph Ellison, Claude Brown, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Sandra Cisneros. In later and more recent years I have added: Amy Tan, Yiyun Li, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz, Edward Jones, Manil Suri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Esmeralda Santiago, Isabelle Allende, Reinaldo Arenas, and Naguib Mahfouz. And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I read these books because many of my teachers assigned them (and most of my K-12 teachers were African-American) but also because they were in my house growing up--my parents read them and gave them to us to read. Then I was hooked and on on my own, I read more.

The cultural canon is movable.  It takes hard work, but it can be done. After all, Hirsch said he had a "spock-like" mind. Star Trek isn't exactly what comes to mind when we think of the "cultural canon," is it? No matter your stance on it, the Common Core would be a great place to start as would Virginia's Standards of Learning.

If we say that we value black lives, that black lives matter, then we also have to show that black ideas, inventions, research, and creativity matter and have been integral, not just to students of color but to our country as a whole.