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African-American Read-In program at Glenwood Elementary (Chapel Hill, NC)

Why Our Schools Don’t Work

Let’s be clear. The research on the failure of American schools has been quite alarming for decades. Prominent educational scholars, impassioned parents, overwhelmed teachers, and frustrated students all share a common disappointment regarding ineffective curriculum, poor consequences, and stifling culture in many locales across the country. Having attended the Orange County (NC) Strong School Board forum for candidates, I can now double-down on at least one very obvious reason why we can’t make progress — smart people aren’t always smart. When posed with the question: “Without defaulting to the easy answer of them both being equal, which ‘ism do you find to be more disturbing in terms of educational inequities in Orange County — classism or racism?” only one candidate replied racism. You have to name it to tame it.

In April 1983 our country was shocked by the government report, “A Nation At Risk,” which outlined how U.S. students were being out-competed internationally and the declining state of educational standards. “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people,” stated the researchers. More recently the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) findings continue to mark the downward spiral of academic achievement. (PISA is a triennial study of ~ 600,000 15 year-old students across the world in three subjects — math, reading and science.) This past November’s report found that approximately a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old. And lastly, we’ve embraced the most well-known and utilized measurement stick for college admissions, the Standardized Achievement Test (SAT), which was born of white supremacy belief. Many still worship biased standardized tests even with the understanding that there are many other ways to demonstrate competence and understanding. Why do we gauge learning on an instrument that is highly challenged, if at all, to measure and value a learner’s passion, individuality, and creativity? Perhaps the same reason why all but one of the Orange County candidates lacked knowledge (or the courage to speak) about the realities of racism in the system that they wish to serve.

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“There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old “accountable” for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.”
Jonathan Kozol

Increasing racial tension was so toxic in Orange County Schools that the board created an equity task force and subsequently endorsed an equity policy last year to address the racial disparities in discipline and academic performance. Thank heavens a group of concerned residents organized and created the Hate-Free School Coalition. Their efforts were instrumental in bringing education, attention, and change to the uncomfortable environment many students had complained about over many years. The Coalition was able to inspire the school board to revise the dress code that permitted the Confederate flag and other divisive symbols on school property. In addition, under the leadership of former superintendent, Dr. Todd Wirt, a policy was implemented such that all school board members were required to attend a racial equity education training. Dr. Wirt proclaimed, “The equity task force has not exclusively focused on race but has explicitly put its focus there because our academic gaps and opportunity inequities are largely based on race.” And yet all only one Orange County candidate could name racism as more disturbing over socioeconomic factors.

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“Racism isn’t just what you say, think, do, and feel. It is also what you allow.”
DaShanne Stokes

People apply and campaign to serve in county positions that work directly or indirectly with people of color. Race matters. And yet, none of the candidates were ever required to take an academic course on race and racism. In fact, almost no one in our country is ever given a mandate to have an analysis of how and why people of color are having the worst outcomes in our institutions and systems. (Note: To read a book, experience discrimination or observe racial inequities is not the same as having an analysis of how people have come to be situated in our communities and the structural arrangement of racism.) Some believe the narrative that classism is just as important as racism when considering the root cause of racial inequities. It is absolutely true that socioeconomic status matters greatly in this country. Racism and classism are connected in a very complex and insidious way. However, lived experiences and research (qualitative and quantitative) clearly reveal that at every income or wealth level, white people still have a relative advantage over people of color in our institutions and systems. When will we address this dynamic in a way that is truth-filled, intentional, and operates with urgency?

The importance of this particular political season and the 2020 Census data collection requires us to be more thoughtful, brave, and inquisitive about the positions of our candidates and those currently holding governmental positions of power. I am hopeful that many more will join that one informed school board candidate to examine how certain populations in our schools are affected by racism. It is only when we move away from guilt and shame that we can do the necessary work to improve conditions for everyone.

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