Thursday Reading List: College Preparation, Ta-Nehisi Coates on Education, and the History of Racism

Nate Bowling writes in Education Post about a college road trip he led for a group of high school students:

This weekend is the natural outgrowth of our shared pedagogical philosophy. We believe in a different model of schooling than is practiced across much of America. We believe in a model of education, where you ensure students’ basic life needs are met, hold them unapologetically to high standards, and support them into their transition to adulthood.

As teachers, Bowling and his peers know that many of their students will face daunting cultural and academic challenges in college. The story of their college road trip is a reminder that academic preparation is more effective when coupled with longitudinal supports for young people as they transition to higher education institutions.

This sort of multifaceted approach to education and justice was the topic of a talk that Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered to a group of New York City principals this week. Alex Zimmerman at Chalkbeat has the story:

Addressing a crowd of roughly 30 school leaders from traditional public, charter, and private schools at a forum organized by The Academy for Teachers, Coates spoke frankly about the role of public schools and his experience as a student in Baltimore. “I guess I feel like the school system sort of failed me, he said. “School was not a physically safe place … violence was a thing you were always coping with.” That public school experience ultimately affected his decision to send his son, Samori, to private school, Coates said ... Coates noted the headwinds teachers face — the consequences of homelessness, poverty and the criminal justice system — and argued that teachers, like black people, are often easy scapegoats for larger institutional failures. So how to resist that demonization? Coates urged educators to “push back” against the idea that it’s solely their responsibility to solve longstanding social problems, and encouraged them to team up with other activists to fight for change.

It's hard to find fault with Coates's advice. On the one hand, his personal experience reveals that the school system is plagued with immense problems that need fixing; on the other hand, it's impossible for individuals within that system to bear all of the responsibility for both those issues and additional exogenous social problems. To acknowledge the exogenous issues should not be tantamount to absolving oneself from solving the legitimate problems with schools themselves. Be wary of two equally pernicious ideas:

First, the idea that the exogenous problems are too vast, and hence educators cannot be held accountable for results.

Second, the idea that fixing schools alone is a sufficient equity agenda, and that the other problems will remedy themselves once schools' problems are solved.

There are systemic issues in American culture that precede the creation of the public schools, like race-based discrimination. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the National Book Award winning Stamped from the Beginning, talked about the history of racist ideas with The Root's Lawrence Ross:

I define a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. In Stamped I cover anti-black racist ideas, showing the two main groups of racist ideas: assimilationist and segregationist. Segregationist ideas say black people are permanently or genetically inferior; black people are incapable of being civilized and developed; and their inferiorities are the cause of racial disparities. Assimilationist ideas say genetically equal black people became inferior due to their degrading environment, whether that environment is hot climates, cultural pathology or the history of oppression. Assimilationist ideas convey black people as temporarily inferior, with the capacity to be civilized and developed one day; and they claim both black inferiority and racial discrimination [as the] cause of racial disparities.

By all accounts, Kendi's book is both accessible and academically rigorous. My holiday wish is for everyone who pontificates about the "free market" to read this book, as I think there are interesting similarities between the academic construal of markets and racism: both are social phenomena that emerge from the participation of many independent human actors, while both also are often regarded as the "natural state" of things, when really they are the result of calculated policy interventions and human invention.

Finally, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic looks into Jeff Sessions's claim that he filed "20 or 30" desegregation cases as a United States attorney:

The Atlantic could not find evidence Sessions filed any new school desegregation lawsuits ... Sessions claimed however, to have “filed 20 to 30” desegregation cases, and [Trump spokesman Jason] Miller likewise said he had  “filed a number a desegregation lawsuits in Alabama.” They did not claim he placed his name on work prepared by the civil rights division, or that he had a small part in ongoing desegregation cases that were filed decades before. And in three of the four examples the transition team offered of Sessions’s “top civil rights enforcement cases” to support the more modest claims regarding his record, attorneys who worked on those cases said they did not recall Sessions playing a major role ... The question looming over Sessions’s nomination isn’t just about his personal views on race, but whether he believes in vigorous enforcement of federal civil-rights laws, and whether as attorney general, he would see them enforced.

First of all, kudos to Serwer for sifting through decades of past filings to determine that Sessions is fabricating his record on civil rights. Second, Serwer's point about enforcement is critical; the reason that "Civil Rights" divisions exist in the justice department, and in other federal cabinet agencies, is to enforce the federal laws that guarantee civil protections. As attorney general, Sessions will have significant ability to "selectively enforce" things like voter protection. Pay attention.