Stagnant School Reform, Institutional Racism, and a Return to What Teachers Know

Summary: Systemic racism exists in education, but is primarily derivative of cyclical poverty and the inability or unwillingness of the political process to address it. Fixation on test scores has led to little overall progress; new research brings us back to age-old truths about teachers and students, to caring and a sense of belonging.

Many well-meaning and hard-working school folk must take exception to talk of systemic or institutional racism, because the occasions are legion where school personnel and kids of color bond and move forward. Some of the quandary has to do with the distinction between personal and institutional racism, where relationships in the microcosm might be supportive, but the overall social result, through forces which appear to be impersonal, remains at best stagnant and at worse destructive. For the latter, we have the evidence of torpid test scores, notably for low income kids, particularly kids of color. Thus, the charge is institutional racism, educational sector.

Doesn’t mean that plenty of people, students and teachers and parents, black, brown and white, aren’t trying. But it does mean that the larger culture chronically inflicts a self-replicating cycle of poverty disproportionately on people of color, which gets embodied in the school struggles of the kids of the community.

The crime and street violence of poor neighborhoods, the pall of hunger and certainly of underemployment and stretched resources, make parent and kid victim of chronic anxieties. Relatively recent findings in neurobiology tell us that such prolonged stresses in a young kid, contrary to what a middle class kid typically experiences, alter his biochemistry toward the fight or flight end of the spectrum, induce a train of physiological consequences, and most tellingly encumber the maturation of the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of our higher intellectual capacities as well as our executive control of both behaviors and emotions.

Such cause and effect can drastically alter a young student’s academic trajectory. Entering school for the first time he will be more likely to manifest behavioral problems and developmental delays, and so encounter early frustrations and failures that will indelibly map his future experiences in school.

The cycle becomes chronic, because our young student has a mother and father who had the same experience, perhaps in the same neighborhood, and with the same pernicious relationship with school. Institutional, systemic racism becomes personified in deficient school outcomes of real kids.

What we have done in schools so far has not adequately undone this cycle, despite ample anecdote that argue the contrary.

My own point of arrival is to finger poverty itself, and the inability or unwillingness of the political culture to address contemporary barriers to wealth such as technological change and globalization, and historical barriers persisting from centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and most recently the systemic incarceration of African American males.

Against these institutions perhaps we should not be surprised that simply attacking academic skill sets would prove an insufficient change agent.

Yet schools have the kids, and are a vehicle of social policy, so it behooves us to reexamine our strategy. The current narrow obsession with test scores has proven a strategic dead end, and may in fact have been counter-productive by misdirecting limited resources.

Perhaps the loosening of federal tentacles via the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will fertilize the flowering of experiment in the states.

Here’s one lead, which seems to return the discussion to age old lore of teacher and student.

Emerging research, as reported by Paul Tough in his new book How Children Succeed, as well as in the Atlantic, offers some tentative alternative means to shake up the cycle of poverty, and use schools as a vehicle to do so.

First, rather than use test scores to measure student, teacher, and school efficacy, Mr. Tough reports that C. Kirbo Jackson of Northwestern University examined in a large North Carolina student state data base certain non-cognitive behavioral categories such as attendance, suspension, appropriate on time movement through grade levels, and cumulative GPA. Note that these categories implicitly measure perseverance and commitment to studies. He found that positive movement in these categories correlated with a student’s arrival on the college level, adult wage trajectory, and the presence or absence of future involvement with the law.

Shades of long term Head Start outcomes; Head Start was also not able to sustain academic skill momentum, but has been shown to improve similar long term positive outcomes.

Moreover, Jackson was able to identify those teachers in the research base who positively affected their students in each of the four non-cognitive measures; teachers whose interaction with students incubated their long term dedication to school. Interestingly, the teachers who influenced this long term effect but not recognized for their contribution were generally not the same teachers who earned plaudits for advancing test scores.

Meanwhile, in closely related findings, Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago, in distilling the work of many investigators, has identified “four key beliefs” present in students who commit to their schoolwork and persevere in it:

“I belong in this academic community; my ability and competence grow with my effort; I can succeed at this; this work has value for me.”

The compelling inference is that these beliefs are those that Kirbo Jackson found cultivated in the students he studied by specific teachers, and which sustained long term benefits.

These linkages bring the discussion achingly close to an older ethic of teaching, based on human relationships. It takes little imagination to interlace the social science research with a humanistic narrative.

A teacher connects with her students through caring, humor, interest, and commitment, gains trust and their love, infuses them with belonging and with being wanted, so to induce in her students belief in self and capacity to persevere within the protection this admired adult and teacher provides. The echoes of positive parenting and attachment theory are unmistakable and beg more elaborate comparison.

Can the empowerment of such relationships surmount the legacies of poverty and the systemic racism thus reinforced? Perhaps not fully in one generation, but if protracted through grandfather, father, son? The nascent research suggests it might, in such a long run.

At any rate, the commitment to the test scores has not worked. It is time to consider alternative paradigms; this old one in new clothing should ring bells. Teachers know.

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