Thursday Reading List: Success in School Reform and White Folks Work

The Editorial Board of The Washington Post is enthusiastic about the continuity of improvement in the District of Columbia's public schools:

The progress the city has made since [2007] was underscored with last week’s release of scores on the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Significant gains across almost all grades and subjects, with all groups of students showing improvements, were a testament to reforms that overhauled a dysfunctional school system and allowed charter schools to flourish ... The performance of the traditional D.C. public school system was particularly impressive, with its students showing gains of 6.4 percentage points in English language arts and 3.5 percentage points in math in 2017. Not only did the public school students show improvement on all grade levels in every ward, but every subgroup — race, economic, special- education status, English-learning status — posted gains. PARCC, administered for just the second time, represents new rigor in measuring student achievement and gives added heft to the results.
giphy (48).gif

My celebration here is somewhat biased, because I worked for the DC Public Schools at the beginning of the reforms discussed in the editorial. That said, it's hard to argue with the facts: a decade of courageous political leadership, coupled with smart, pragmatic reforms, has led to consistent progress for what had been the lowest performing school system in the entire country. While many of DC's reforms have been controversial, the city's approach to improvement has been heterodox: they invested lots of resources in the traditional public schools, while also cultivating a diverse sector of public charter schools.

Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat wonders if school reform issues will percolate in Democratic gubernatorial primaries:

... while the party is united in its distaste for President Donald Trump, candidates vying for state leadership from California to Georgia are split on key education issues. To simplify: In one camp are those who favor charter schools and accountability policies based in part on test scores, exemplified by the group Democrats for Education Reform. In the other camp are those — most prominently teachers unions — who emphasize greater investment in schools and are skeptical of solutions that focus on charters and choice. Those tensions are growing, as the current president and his unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos make education reform a tougher sell than it was under President Obama, who supported charter schools. “I do expect this fight to play out to some degree in Democratic primaries up and down the ballot,” said Shavar Jeffries, the DFER president. “The old-line forces see an opportunity to use the historically toxic Trump-DeVos brand to reverse progress we’ve made under Presidents Clinton and Obama.”

Barnum's basic analysis is correct, and Jeffries is right to worry that traditionalists may paint with a broad brush when lambasting opponents' positions on these issues. That said, if reform-minded candidates are smart, they will neutralize part of this debate by also advocating for more investment in schools. At some point in the 1990s, centrist reformers got infatuated with the idea of austerity, predicated on the idea that schools had enough money and were spending it poorly., There's plenty of misspent money in public schools systems, but there's still tons of inequity in how that money is distributed, so the "schools have enough money" argument is dead-on-arrival in many communities. Moreover, if we learned one thing from the Obama reform era, it's that dramatic change goes down easier with a spoonful of sugar, AKA new money. Finally, if reformers take away the money argument, the traditionalists will be left with an argument predicated only on opposition.

In short: Democrats who support student-centric school reforms should drop "austerity" and "do more with less" from their vocabularies.

giphy (49).gif

Sharif El-Mekki, writing at Philly's 7th Ward, has advice for white folks, which you know is catnip for me:

While confederate flags, torches, violence, and angry white men and women, marching to save a statue that symbolizes their love for the historic “greatness” of the overt racism of America makes people appropriately upset, other quieter forms of racism and white privilege too often do not cause people to raise an eyebrow, let alone take to the streets. With cavernous chasms existing between black and white wages, generational wealth, literacy, high school graduation, college degree attainment, suspensions, imprisonment, and school funding, white supremacy is alive and well in the City of Brotherly Love and across America. Our historic policies prove that the “love” is often only shared amongst the privileged white folks in our country. There are thousands of extremely comfortable people who don’t give a second’s thought about how their “deserved comforts” and privileged entitlements are at the expense of thousands of people of color.

El-Mekki's piece encapsulates a sentiment that I have heard from activists, particularly those of color, for many years. Namely, the idea is that white people flock to activism when it involves symbolic gestures, but as soon as folks start talking about unwinding the structural privileges of whiteness, most of us white folks are nowhere to be found. This is a problem!

Michael Harriott of The Root goes after another pathology in our national discourse about race:

Comparing white supremacy to Black Lives Matter is like comparing arsonists to firefighters ... their intentions are diametrically opposed. As with most actions, everything boils down to intent. For the sake of putting this issue to bed, let’s dissect the arguments against the concept of Black Lives Matter being the equivalent of the centuries-old white supremacy movement. Instead of using conjecture and opinion, however, let’s base the argument on facts.
giphy (50).gif

Harriott subsequently demolishes this particular false equivalence.

I share these sorts of articles for two reasons. First, I know that many of my readers are white, and I want us to grapple with our role in perpetuating white supremacy. Second, those same white readers need to be on the day-to-day front lines of fighting back against structural inequities. Doing so effectively means knowing THE FACTS!

giphy (51).gif

When you're sitting at the dinner table with your Racist Ass Motherfucking Uncle, who's been marinating in untruths from Fox News all summer, you have to know how to neutralize his idiotic arguments. As I've said before, you're probably not going to change the minds of extremely committed racists ... but armed with the right information and approach, you are in a position to win over your more moderate peers, family members, and neighbors.

Good luck, and have a great day!