Racism Rules Schools

by Dr. Bill Conrad
excerpted from The Fog of Education

“My teacher told me to my face that this school was a lot better years ago when they had only white kids to teach.

– High School Student, Seattle, WA

Just imagine the courage it took for a young Black teenager to stand up at a North Thurston School District-sponsored focus group meeting and tell his jaw-dropping story of a hurtful racist insult hurled at him by his teacher. In the presence of his school principal, district superintendent, associate superintendents, and student peers, this young Black man recounted how his teacher told him that the school ran a lot better when it did not have Black kids like him.

Raw racism on full display.

Did the administrators respond? Did they console the young teen? Did they say that they would look into the matter?

No. There was nothing. Just silence.

And sadly, this young man is not alone in facing racism in school, an environment where all students should feel safe to learn.

I worked as the Assessment Coordinator for the Alameda County Office of Education. The County established “community schools” for students that the public schools in Alameda County could not handle – mostly students of color. These students scored poorly on state tests. In fact, 0% of the 11th grade students were proficient or advanced on the California state math test. The community schools became warehouse for local school districts within Alameda. Districts could send their “troubled” students (read: children of color) to these schools and the transferred student state test scores would not be included within the local school district averages.

Just another neat trick that school districts and the County office colluded on to make superintendents look better on state tests.

Classes for these students were stultifying. We tried to get the teachers to at least write their learning objectives for a lesson on the board. It was a herculean task. Teachers were so bad that they could not even accomplish this simple task. Even though the students were in high school, teachers would lead them in elementary reading activities where students would read passages in round-robin fashion during class.

Teachers would allow students to put their heads on their desks and sleep. I asked one teacher why he didn’t encourage one sleeping Black student to participate and he told me that this Black student was destined for failure and that there was no need to disturb his sleep. It made me want to throw up.

Also in my role as Assessment Director for the County of Santa Clara, I had the opportunity to observe high school classes conducted at the county’s Osborne Juvenile Center.  This site was filled with mostly students of colors who had committed or were accused of crimes within the county. Teachers conducted classes with the backup of at least two armed guards to maintain discipline. 

And yet, the children were the most well-behaved and engaged students you could imagine. Unfortunately, the curriculum and methods that teachers used were improvisational and well below the grade level for the students. The students were bored, but enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a setting where they could communicate with one another occasionally.

These are just a few random acts of racism I encountered on my visits within school districts. I’m sure students of color experience many more instances like this every day. These real racist artifacts made me recognize the burden that students of color still need to shoulder within schools. As Giroux says, “There is a War on Youth in our country.”[1]

One more story: I was walking through a large comprehensive high school in Kansas City, Missouri, preparing to conduct a focus group meeting with students as a prelude to a strategic planning meeting with the community scheduled for later in the month.

After having worked with many school districts within the state of Washington, our team at Performance Fact, Inc., had come to the epiphany that the students within the strategic planning teams had a great deal to offer. In fact, at one school district in Washington State, the student team members had grown tired of the procrastination of the large strategic planning group in developing a strategic plan. They formed an ad hoc group of their own and developed the draft plan which ultimately became the strategic plan for the school district.

After this experience, we decided to include the input of the students at the very beginning of all of our strategic planning initiatives, including this one that we led in Kansas City.

Rushing to get to the student focus group site on the third floor in the library, I encountered a security guard admonishing a tall Black male student who was in the elevator with two other female students.

“Get out of that elevator right now, young man,” the security guard commanded.

“What have I done wrong?” asked the incredulous student.

“I am not going to let you travel with these two young ladies on this elevator. Do you understand? Now get out or I will have you arrested.”

“Whoa,” exclaimed the young man as he quickly exited the elevator with a look of real chagrin on his face. The girls were equally flummoxed at this very odd order. 

So up went the girls, while we waited for the elevator to return. This was my first encounter with racism in the Kansas City school district.

As I entered the library, I encountered two middle school students who asked that I give them some airtime during the session to discuss some important matters that were affecting their schooling. I gave them permission to engage the group.

After introducing myself to the group and initiating the meeting, I handed the meeting over to these students, Jack and Sandy.

Jack said to his fellow students, “Our teachers and security guards are constantly harassing us and getting on our case for stupid little things. It’s totally unfair. Are any of you experiencing this too?”

Almost all of the students raised their hands in agreement.

Sandy, the second student, turned to me and said, “What can you and your strategic planning committee do to fix this problem, Bill? We are really tired of getting harassed.”

Another student in the group piped up, “It seems like only us Black kids are getting targeted for unfair discipline. When will it end? Is this a prison or a school?”

I told the students that I would make sure that the student leaders on the Strategic Planning Committee would make this very real issue a key part of our strategic discussions.

This was an auspicious beginning to our student focus group meeting. It reinforced in my mind the power of students when they recognize the racism in their midst and work to seek solutions.

As our focus group wrapped up, I was pulled aside by two other students of color.

The first student, Jane, looked a little nervous and quietly said, “Bill, can we talk with you for a bit? We are afraid the administration will take revenge on us if they know that we were talking with you. We have already experienced some of it.”

Shaniqua, the second student, elaborated, “We have had this ongoing problem with our bus driver.”

I said, “Oh yeah?  What’s the problem?”

Shaniqua continued, “Every day at the bus stop, the bus driver slows down, stops at our pick-up place, and then just drives on without letting us on the bus. Our other Black friends experience the same bad treatment. The bus is always filled with white kids. It’s bullshit and it’s racist.”

“Wow,” I said. “That is a real problem. Have you talked with your school principal about this?”

Jane, visibly upset and quietly crying, said in a hushed voice, “Oh, yeah. We spoke with our principal. Nothing changed. We even tried to talk with district leaders. Nothing happened. We are so frustrated. We are also afraid that we will pay a price for speaking out about this problem. We know you are from the outside, so we thought that you could influence them to help us get on to the bus.”

Shaniqua added, “We are tired of having to walk to school in all kinds of weather, only to get to school late and get detentions for being late, and then we have to stay after school.”

I was shocked by this unbelievable story of racism. I told the girls that I would address their issue with the district and school administrations.

Jane warned, “Be careful, Bill. We don’t want the Man to come down hard on us for having gone outside to find a solution.”

I assured the girls that I would be discrete. I then walked out of the library, having been given multiple lessons on how racism rears its ugly head in our schools. It was not theoretical for me anymore. It was real.

While these examples of racist treatment of students could be special cases, they are nonetheless disturbing and represent the real concerns that student have about the racism in their midst. Furthermore, the students realize that the issue is not being adequately addressed by the grown-ups in the system. 

The children who are willing to speak out at focus group meetings with superintendents and top administrators hovering over them display true courage, as they most assuredly expose themselves to retribution.

The racist policies that pervade the system drive a situation where children of color receive the least. And then the leaders of K-12 have the audacity to label these students as “Difficult Learners” or “Long-term English Language Learners.” 

It is truly a War on Youth.[2]

This is a magnificent con that adds more fog to K-12 education. The previously mentioned assignment of the least qualified or Teach for America candidates to the schools most in need is a fundamental cause of poor student academic success.  Racism is real in K-12 education despite the sanctimonious protestations of many administrators.

Students of color get the most novice and inexperienced teachers and the least resources.  A study of schools in New York City, which looked at data from 2009-2012 for roughly 540 schools, demonstrated the disparity. At schools with mainly Black and Latino students, nearly 42 percent of teachers, on average, are considered qualified — meaning they have Master’s degrees and additional training. That compares to schools with a white majority, where nearly 57 percent of teachers are considered qualified, according to the report.[3]

Yet few bring these clearly racist policies up for discussion. Racism has evolved into a new phenomenon that can be called Racism Nouveau. The new racism is generally invisible within the system. It is baked in and never even talked about.  The assignment of novice teachers to children of color is celebrated and never addressed within the system, as if it is lucky that children of color get any teachers at all. They should be grateful for the pittance they get.

Racism is fostered at the highest levels of the education hierarchy including state government.

For years in California, the State Board of Education trumpeted the need to address the achievement gap in schools and school districts across California.[4]

Former state superintendent of education Jack O’Connell frequently talked about the achievement gap between White/Asian student populations and students of color. O’Connell implored districts to seek and apply solutions. The State Board of Education, though, was not willing to significantly address the underlying problem of ensuring systemic quality professional practices. Children of color, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English Learners are really the canaries in the mine for successful academic achievement.

They are most sensitive to both quality of school programming. Even when Black students do have access to honors or advanced placement courses, they are vastly underrepresented in these courses. Black and Latino students represent 38 percent of students in schools that offer AP courses, but only 29 percent of students enrolled in at least one AP course. Black and Latino students also have less access to gifted and talented education programs than white students.[5]

The California state board of education fell back on the well-worn canard that it must be the students who are the problem. The state advocated for special programs to address the imagined needs of these groups. Recently, as mentioned previously, the state advocates for programs that will improve the social and emotional fitness of students. By broadening the scope of the state’s educational responsibilities, they are able to diminish their role in supporting student academic achievement. 

It would have taken great courage to recognize that the system itself was the problem.  It was far easier to blame the victims, offer a few impotent palliatives, and call it a day. 

The California board of education also sought to find the diamonds in the rough who had achieved some success in reducing the achievement gap. They would hold up school districts like Garden Grove as models for other school districts to follow. The CDE released statewide results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) exams, which show that Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD) students outperformed the county and state in both English Language Arts and mathematics in 2019.

In English Language Arts, 60.9% of GGUSD students met or exceeded standards compared to 50.8% across California and 59.4% across Orange County. In mathematics, 52.2% of GGUSD students met or exceeded state standards compared to 39.7% across California and 50.4% across Orange County.

The Garden Grove school district recognized the important role that the teacher plays in advancing student academic success. Garden Grove district leaders see teachers and teaching as the fundamental drivers of student success. As outgoing superintendent Laura Schwalm explains, “You’re never going to be a better district than the teachers in your classrooms.” To that end, the central office sees two paths to improving instructional quality: (1) getting the best teachers and (2) building the capacity of the teachers it has.”[6]

This Garden Grove School Distrct gem of improving teacher quality was placed in the lap of the bureaucrats at the CDE, but they failed to do their job of mandating that all school districts follow the path of improving curricula, aligning high quality professional practices, and instituting monitoring and accountability systems. They would herald new standards, but fail to provide the necessary curricula for teachers to use. They would tout the importance of data-driven instruction, but fail to provide data systems that would assist school districts in effectively harnessing data to drive improvement.

And to no one’s surprise, the achievement gap persists.

The state board of education in California ultimately had to recognize the failure of its ways. 

Unable to muster the cujones to demand a transformation of the K-12 system, the current board embarked on a new and ineffective gambit. They have abandoned their responsibility to actually help and support all school districts plan and implement quality and aligned professional practices and hold the districts accountable. Instead, they have passed on the responsibility of developing and implementing strategic plans to the individual school districts through the Local Control and Accountability (LCAP). [7]

As a consequence, we have school districts completing bureaucratic LCAP forms[8] with little or no real plans to improve or align professional practices and curriculum within their districts. Just looking at the lengthy but vague strategic plans that chart no path for real implementation or accountability, and you be convinced that the achievement gap will remain in place for many years to come.

It now falls to individual school districts to find the path to successfully reducing the achievement gap. And to their credit, there are some districts like Garden Grove who have discovered the Holy Grail of systematically improving their curriculum and aligned professional practices to demonstrate that systematic improvements can benefit all students, including students of color.[9] One of the keys to addressing racism is to make sure that all students, regardless of race, have access to quality teaching and learning.

The state board praises districts like Garden Grove and encourages other districts to follow their example, but there are no teeth in any of this – only encouragement. 

One only need look at the student academic results[10] to see that K-12 education needs more systematic support and control. You reap what you sow, and that responsibility falls to the adults, not the children.

Rather than stepping up and taking real leadership, the state board of education in California, under the leadership of Linda Darling Hammond, has embarked on an even crazier gambit to double down on blaming the victims. They now propose that school districts jump on the bandwagon of social and emotional learning as the balm that will cure all ills in K-12 education. Just make sure that the children are socially and emotionally prepared and academic learning will follow. Unfortunately, this predictable hype is not a panacea. Claims for success of this new educational initiative were based upon specious empirical evidence.[11]

It is a zombie idea that will never die.

The students want their teachers to like and respect them. They want their teachers to know their content well and be able to teach it well. The initiative is not well defined and empirical claims for its success are murky as well.

But educators are unable to look in the mirror and address their own need to improve and align their professional practices, assessments, and curricula. We will end up with a generation of students (except the entitled white students) who have relaxed on bean bag chairs and sipped hot chocolate in preparation for their sure to be careers as well-adjusted greeters at Wal-Mart or moving pallets at Amazon Sortation Centers.

You can bet that Amazon Corporation values teaching and learning and will ensure that their workers are able to scan packages properly, wrap and close pallets, and move them to the appropriate locations for loading on their Prime trucks.

The root cause problem of real racism within the K-12 system will never be solved in our lifetime. If it is not even recognized to be a systemic problem by educational leaders, how can we possibly hope to solve it?  

Better to signal virtuous equity and do nothing substantive about the real problems within the system. The signaling of equity virtue occurs when administrators advocate for easy-to-address racial symptoms.  They hire Black consultants, advocate for the use of unbiased language by teachers and administrators, or the need for students to learn about their ethnic background.

These kinds of actions are most acceptable to the entitled whites within the system. God forbid if the administrators pushed too hard on real equity issues like shifting some of the highly qualified staff from their white schools to schools of color. The white parent blowback would be fierce. Better to stick with the easy equity Band-Aids.

The imperative to maintain six-figure salary trumps the imperative to do the right thing for children of color. And the blame game is so well embedded within K-12 culture that it is invisible and easy to do nothing about. 

Racism within the United States has a very long and tragic history. It begins early and with slavery. Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million people were kidnapped from Africa and sent to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade. Only 10.7 million survived the harrowing two-month journey.[12]  The way that educators in the United States teach about slavery tends to sanitize the horrors of this practice, focusing on the positive Black heroes who fought against slavery including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. In the recent past, Texas taught that it was state’s rights, not slavery, that was the cause of the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  The decree took two-and-a-half years to fully enact. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger informed the enslaved individuals of Galveston, Texas, that they were officially free. It is now known as Juneteenth. Blacks then fled the south in a phenomenon called the Mass Migration.  Blacks began to take agency over their own lives.

There was some initial hope for Blacks with the institution of Reconstruction by Lincoln and Grant. Things then went south (literally) after the assassination of Lincoln and the ascendancy of the racist president Andrew Johnson. Blacks began to be held in a new virtual slavery characterized by sharecropping and debt peonage.

Racial, economic and educational disparities are deeply entrenched in U.S. institutions and have contributed in a wide variety of instances over the years. While there have been some initiatives to ameliorate these awful conditions, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the reversal of Plessey vs Ferguson (which tokened the phrase “separate but equal”), and the Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954, much racism has been overlooked or outright ignored. It wasn’t until recently that the country passed a federal law outlawing lynching in the United States.[13]

And none too soon, as it is open season on Black people in the United States. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement.[14] The struggle for racial justice is still very much underway in the U.S.

The devolution of slavery into racism within the United States is truly an extension of America’s original sin. Racism is a combination of factors, individual and systemic, that favor white people over people of color. Systemic racism is well grounded in our laws and our institutions that advantage white people over people of color. Racism can also be found in interpersonal relationships through offensive language, bullying, and outright violence. In many ways, racism is so baked into our society that it is virtually invisible.

Racism thrives within our K-12 education system.

It is hard enough to talk about the multiple K-12 pathologies that afflict the system. Unearthing the racism beneath many of these pathologies is much more challenging. Connections to racism can be found in many of the pathologies described in the book. While the selfishness and the greed of administrators and other education leaders play a pivotal role within many of these pathologies, racism also represents a major root cause. Let’s take a look at some of these connections now.

The pretend profession of teaching has not yet reached a level of professionalism to adequately serve all of the children in the United States. I presented abundant student achievement data to back up this claim. No business could survive if half of its products were defective. Yet K-12 education can roll on when only one half of third graders can read. One could argue that this major flaw within the system affects all student and not just student of color. However, scratch the surface a bit, and you will see how the mostly invisible and sinister effects of racism come into play when the profession is so unprofessional and raconteur.

One antidote to this disease would be to transform the colleges of education so that they recruit the finest and train them well. These novice teachers should enter a teaching profession where they engage in a career ladder that results in well-paid Master teachers who hold the line on excellence in teaching and learning. Only if you saturate the system with quality teachers, will the students of color receive the teachers that they deserve.

Another important problem that requires an antidote is the data-driven charade that directs school districts within the K-12 education system.  I spent years working as an assessment and accountability expert in multiple school districts, sucking up to superintendents who begged me to adjust data presentations to make the administrators look good and to save their assess from losing their six-figure salaries.

When I worked for Performance Fact, Inc., we would bend over backward to present data and provide protocols that should have motivated even the least data-savvy school administrator to take action to improve academic achievement. The most shocking numbers showed the abysmal performance outcomes of students of color.

All for nothing.

Rather than address their main mission of ensuring academic achievement for all students including students of color, local school boards and district superintendents would be satisfied with pursuing all manner of non-academic goals like graduation rates, reduction of student suspensions, and improving the social-emotional health of the children. They addressed what they were allowed to address. If it were not possible to academically prepare students of color, it would be better to make sure that they were well-adjusted.

District strategic teams could easily brush off very low academic performance by students of color because they could always find a few who could beat the odds and demonstrate success. They could present these token high performers to their local school boards as proof that their educational systems were working in an equitable way. Local school boards are always gullible and willing to accept special case success over system success.

As for the rest of the students of color for whom the system failed? Their numbers were never mentioned, much less addressed.

To add insult to injury, the system likes to rail against the summative assessments that represent the canaries in the coalmine. Rather than look at the abysmal data for students of color and use that as a catalyst to improve and align professional practices, educators blame and discredit the tests themselves, as if no credible test could produce such low numbers. Testing takes time away from teaching the children. The tests are biased. They are not aligned with what we really teach. They take too much time away from teaching and learning. Always some excuse.

Educators, of course, hold no accountability for so few students of color achieving even minimal success. No one ever got fired for not making sure that the students of color achieve.  Educators can live off of special cases and raging against the tests.

However, for some bizarre reasons, local school boards and administrators pretend that the state and federal accountability systems actually do have some teeth. Rather than address ways to address flaws in professional practices, they game the system. They ask me and other data experts within the district to identify the “bubble kids” to focus on in order to ensure that these fortunate few who are close to proficiency get special academic attention and can vault over the proficiency test bars.

The students of color fare the worst in this pathological system because they have received the least human and material resources. They are so far below basic that the system considers them “throw away” students, too far gone to ever be able to jump the test proficiency hurdles. After all, it is the asses of the local school boards and superintendents that we are trying to save. Not the children of color. Let them wallow in their “below basic” academic ghettoes.

In this quick fix world, school systems elect to pursue alchemistic pyrite rather than scientifically based gold. Reading triage will be relegated to giving students leveled reading books rather than teaching them the essential elements of how to read. Students of color will be taught how to manipulate buggy algorithms to “solve” math problems – not to understand the mathematics but just to get through the state test with a passing grade. Hands-on and minds on science is also not in the cards for students of color. Instead, they must participate in mind-numbing test prep classes to get them ready for the ever-looming state science tests.

White kids?

They already know enough science to do well on the state test and will get the opportunity to participate in project-based science units.

Since the students of color are considered to be too far gone to really save, no real time will be spent on using scientifically and cognitively appropriate pedagogies. They will get the quick-fix remedies like weak after school programs. Administrators hope that the students will apply the quick-fix  remedies successfully on the state tests.

And the racism extends to the Brown kids as well. We have seen that many white parents discovered the wonders of multilingualism and commandeered the dual-immersion classes and converted them into one-way immersion classes. They want to ensure their entitled children get to become at least bilingual. Of course, these parents, in their beneficence, will permit a few token English Learner Brown children to participate. But not too many, because they will be taking the seats that white kids who should be in these classrooms.

It is bad enough that local school districts use bilingual program to support white parents, they also use the programs to maximize the flow of state and federal financial munificence. Local school boards and administrators are more than willing to put their English Learners on a slow boat to learning English, as it guarantees the continuous infusion of restricted state and federal dollars into the school system. Administrators can conveniently divert these restricted funds to pay for all manner of educational boondoggles.

In order to keep EL numbers and thus extra funding healthy, the byzantine system of reclassification provides an excellent hurdle to slow the process of helping English Learners to become classified as fluent in English. You can surely bet that if white children had to learn Spanish, there would be a concerted effort to use scientific methods to teach Spanish, not the endless dual-language programs we see now. This is a racist practice because much of the extra money gets redirected into the general fund to better support white kids especially within the area of technology.

White kids have long had greater advantage in access to technology at school and at home than students of color. Sanctimonious educators have even named the phenomenon “the digital divide.” No real efforts were made to ameliorate this situation, as the education system did not take the time to work out how to effectively use technology, only celebrating the fact that they had the fanciest of tech toys.

However, COVID-19 illuminated in great detail the digital divide, as technology became the gateway for accessing teaching for students and their families forced to stay home. The digital divide truly became a crisis. Yet the administrators were not too willing to redirect funds to ensure that students of color had the requisite technology and wireless access to be able to participate in the new online learning environments.  They instead sought the charity approach in seeking funds from the tech giants.

Real leaders would have transformed their systems and budgets to ensure that the children of color got the technology and broadband they needed as soon as possible as these tools were now critical in the midst of pandemic.  But no! Better to be supplicant and beg rather than be courageous and lead. Children of color lose out again.

Due to this imbalance in access to teaching and learning, you think that the administration would at least prioritize getting students of color back into physical schools first. No such luck.

There are exceptions. Devon Horton from the Evanston school district in Illinois did have the courage to prioritize students of color to return to their schools first. The blowback from white parents forced school personnel to seek protection. You have to be very careful in the U.S. not to touch the third rail of infringing on the inalienable rights of white parents.[15]

The war on youth goes way beyond labeling though. Districts like to have real city police roaming the hallways of K-12 schools arresting students. In Oakland schools, 71% of arrests are of Black students. When polled, 61% of the students in the system do not want police in their schools.[16]

Whites claim that the police protect against the potential of active shooters in schools.[17] Of all the thousands of police hired by schools over many years, none have actually stopped an active shooter. However, they have arrested 1 million students.[18] This is just another way to keep Black students in the prison pipeline.

K-12 educators routinely engage in the malpractice of suspensions and expulsions. We suspend Black students at more than 3 times the rate that they suspend white students.[19] We also suspend Black students disproportionately compared to other demographic groups.[20] Similar atrocities are dealt to our Brown children.  When students are suspended or expelled, they get the message from the system that they are not really important. They become rich targets for gangs who will easily recruit them and put them on track for a life of crime and ultimate prison.

We have also seen the disproportionate placement of Blacks in special education.  If you are a Black male, you are much more likely to be inducted into the Special Education program at your school, regardless whether you need the services. Black males are seen as having “challenging” behaviors and are referred to special education at greater rates than their white peers. Black males are labeled emotionally disturbed at almost twice the rate of their white peers. They are over twice as likely to receive special education services for serious emotional disturbance as other culturally and linguistically diverse groups.  Finally, they are three times as likely to receive services for mental retardation as White students.[21] This leads to an overrepresentation of Black males in special education programs, when compared to their percentage within the general school population.

In 2015-16, thirteen percent of students, ages 3–21, enrolled in public schools were served under IDEA, a total of 6.7 million individuals. The percentage served varied by race/ethnicity: it was highest for those who were American Indian/Alaska Native (17 percent), followed by those who were Black (16 percent), White (14 percent), of Two or more races (13 percent), Hispanic and Pacific Islander (12 percent each), and Asian (7 percent)[22].

The mis-assignment of Black males to Special Education can have deleterious consequences for these students including:

  • Once students receive special education services, they tend to remain in special education classes.
  • Students are likely to encounter a limited, less rigorous curriculum.
  • Lower expectations can lead to diminished academic and post-secondary opportunities.
  • Students in special education programs can have less access to academically able peers.
  • Disabled students are often stigmatized socially.
  • Disproportionality can contribute to significant racial separation.[23]

We have also seen how the use of language and labeling has a deleterious effect on students of color. When less than one-third of Black third graders can read, we label the Black children “slow readers” or “readers at risk.” These and other labels take the stance of blaming the victim, the student. In reality, it is the teachers and the administrators who are unable to teach reading effectively.

We very much like to play the blame game in K-12 education, because it lets us avoid looking in the mirror.

There are other examples of how labeling impacts our students of color. They are disproportionately suspended or expelled, and to add insult to injury are labeled as being defiant or troublemakers. As if defying poorly trained teachers is some sort of crime.

Probably the most invisible form of racism within the structure are the local school boards.  Since the local school board members are not educational experts, they will defer educational expertise to the superintendents that they hire. These superintendents do not have to be told that their primary responsibility is to ensure that the most veteran and quality teachers get assigned to the schools with predominantly white parents. This racist principle is well established in the rules and culture of the school district.

Racism Nouveau.

Clearly, the scourge of racism is the common thread that weaves its way through most of the pathologies of K-12 education previously described in this book. The toxic conflation of ill-prepared teachers, “self before service” administrators, white-centric local school boards, unscientific approaches to teaching and learning, poor strategic planning ability and implementation, and many other previously described maladies create a racist culture. Much of it is invisible and never discussed.

We talk about what we can talk about.

As Laura Thomas so eloquently described in her short essay “The Fork Debate,”[24] we talk about the silly little things we can talk about when the actual crisis is too big to tackle. For educators, that means designing a new course to help students of color get in touch with their histories and cultures.[25] We don’t want to acknowledge our role in continuing to deny students of color a quality education and the life opportunities that come with it. It is too much to take in, let alone address.

Many school districts’ funding is proportional to property values, favoring school districts with upper-class housing. These hidden policies are strongly protected by racist school boards and their sycophant administrative teams, ensuring the financially well-endowed white schools get more resources than the poorer, predominantly Black schools. That is the racist reality of K-12 education that no one seems interested in talking about. The integration of Black and white students across schools would help to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and ultimately school resources across schools.

We, holier than thou educators, will organize equity workshops to help us racist whites get in touch with our use of lingo. We develop and mandate ethnic diversity courses for the students so that they can learn about their unique cultures. We will not address the root cause structural issues related to racism in our schools.

Whites have ruled in the past. They will rule now. They will rule in the future.

Researchers like Rita Kohli argue that a “new racism” pervades K-12 education now.[26]I like to call it Racism Noveau. They argue that there are three levels to the new racism.

  1. Evaded racism, where strategic discussions about equity are divorced from institutional and concrete discussions.
  2. “Anti-racist” racism, where institutional racist practices and policies are masked as the solution to racism.
  3. Everyday racism, where racism occurs at the micro or interpersonal level.

Kohli’s study describes how supposed anti-racist policies, such as the formation of charter schools, actually have racist implications. Charter schools, for instance, advantage white student and lead to the closing of schools within predominantly Black neighborhoods. Predominantly white charter schools maintain their exclusivity through the use of complicated application processes. The charters are usually run by white philanthropists, who tend to replace veteran Black teachers with younger white teachers.

The existence of everyday racism within schools as has been previously described with teachers engaging in both overt racism and micro-aggressions against Black and Brown students.[27]  As we have seen, teachers can engage in overt racist statements to teachers. They can also engage in racist microaggressions against students of color as well. Some examples include:

  • Only correcting the grammar of Hispanic students in class.
  • Always mispronouncing the names of the Black students
  • Acting surprised when students of color do well on tests
  • Scheduling tests on religious holidays for students of color[28]

The “Woke to Equity” administrators proclaim their commitment to ensuring that every student gets the educational support and resources that they need, even if it means an unequal distribution of resources to children of color, economically disadvantaged students, English Learners and Students with Disabilities. It may be necessary to ensure that some students get more support resources than others in order to ensure their academic success.

They say this, and yet school boards and obeisant administrators ensure that their entitled white students receive the most qualified teachers and the best resources.

Some in the education community ignore the research and claim that it is not a student’s color that matters in terms of academic achievement. They claim that it is the economic disadvantage that creates the achievement gap. It just so happens that many African Americans are economically disadvantaged. However, studies have shown that when you control for economic factors and other socio-economic criteria, there is still a very strong achievement gap for African American males.[29]

So, color does matter in the racist K-12 system.

In his famous book, Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol identified numerous examples of the inequities that exist between schools with children of color and schools with white students. Some examples include:

  • MacKenzie High School in Detroit, where word processing courses are taught without word processors because the school cannot afford them
  • East St. Louis Senior High School, in Illinois, whose Biology lab has no laboratory tables or usable dissecting kits, with nearby suburban schools where children enjoy a computer hookup to Dow Jones to study stock transactions and science laboratories that rival those in some industries.
  • Paterson, New Jersey, which could not afford the qualified teachers needed to offer foreign language courses to most high school students, compared with Princeton, where foreign language instruction begins in elementary school.[30]

The trope of separate but equal is a myth that continues to live in K-12 education. We no longer integrate; we warehouse our students of color in resource-poor, prison-like environments. Without the courageous efforts to integrate schools, school districts will be left with real educational disparities between white and Black/Brown students.

We are still unable to recognize let alone address egregious racism within our schools. We continue to layer a patina of respectability over the racist system, K-12 districts like the Seattle School District make every effort to create the veneer of virtuosity and trumpet their commitment to equity.  Larry Nyland, the outgoing superintendent of Seattle Schools, forgot to follow through on a commitment to improve educational opportunities for African American males that was written into his contract.[31]

In a rush to fulfill this easily forgotten requirement for his next evaluation with the school board, he called upon our company, Performance Fact, to do a rush job in completing another document proclaiming an “action plan” to improve educational and (of course) social-emotional opportunities for the African American males in the school district.

We dutifully convened the requisite “cross-functional” team and created a well-conceived and glitzy plan.  The plan saved Larry’s ass, but it was never implemented – simply made into board policy and then filed away, as most of these plans are. Just another artifact of virtue signaling by a superintendent. Of course, the school board never held Larry accountable for implementation or evaluation.

And so, it goes.

Even the exterior of schools in Black communities look like prisons. These fortresses most surely send the message to Black children that we do not trust you and we believe you are actually dangerous, so we will keep you locked up in our fortress schools as a foreshadowing of your future residence. Chester High School in Chester, PA, where I worked as a consultant for several year is just this kind of prison — oh, sorry — I mean school. Chester High serves 67% Black and 11% Hispanic students.

The education on the interior is as bleak as the building’s exterior. We attempted to help the team with their strategic planning, but the educational staff at the school was so weak that we accomplished nothing. We couldn’t even ensure that teachers would write the day’s learning objectives on the board before a class.

Meanwhile, security was ample and stringent, with mandated metal detectors, pat downs, and backpack checking required before entering the building. Numerous security guards roamed the hallways.

Academic achievement results remained abysmal for the two years that we worked in the school district. A little more than one-quarter of the students are proficient in math and just under one-third of students are proficient in English Language Arts.

White communities would never accept schools like this, but it seems they are just what the doctor ordered for Black children.

A real school-to-prison pipeline that starts with a school that looks like a prison.

As educators, we have our own racist proclivities. No? Let’s talk about that.

Superintendents with real courage might upset this unspoken racist apple cart by allocating the most qualified teachers (which are at a premium, given the woeful preparation of most teachers) to the schools most in need. But such strong superintendents would never survive. Teachers are given latitude to decide which schools they want to apply to. Principals interview candidates and take care of the hiring.

Most veteran teachers who are looking for a job will seek to be employed in schools that they consider to be more stable and less chaotic. This means that the newest teachers end up applying and getting hired by the schools with the student populations most in need.  In 1990, for example, the Los Angeles City School District was sued by students in predominantly minority schools because their schools were not only overcrowded and less well funded than other schools, they were also disproportionately staffed by inexperienced and unprepared teachers hired on emergency credentials.[32]  In 1999, students in California’s predominantly minority schools were 10 times more likely to have uncertified teachers than those in predominantly white schools.[33]

Our only hope is for the children to rise up and resist the abomination of racism in our schools. We are just too comfortable, and racism is just invisible to us within our very own system. We are just so pathetic.

The Black Organizing Project (BOP) in Oakland, California, is a growing movement among the youth in the United States who are taking agency over their lives as the grown-ups have mostly failed to protect them, educate them, and prepare them for their futures.  While BOP works primarily in Oakland, they have had great influence on the communities around them to support the removal of police from their schools. They have become a model for how students in other schools can effectively work to remove the police from their schools.

The students who are a part of the BOP team are working to do something about the racist police presence within their schools.  They partnered with Public Counsel and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California to develop a powerful report, titled From Report Card to Criminal Record: The Impact of Policing Oakland Youth.  Key findings from the report include:

  • Over a seven-year period, Black youth were, on average, 73.5% of all juvenile arrests by the Oakland Police Department each year, even though they make up just 29.3% of the Oakland youth population.
  • Black youth were referred to the Alameda County Probation program at more than 2.5 times their percentage in the population. This means they are six times more likely than Hispanic youth and 23 times more likely than White youth to be arrested and referred to Alameda County Probation.
  • Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) reports employing only an average of 20.5 school counselors, or one school counselor for every 1,854 students.  School counselors play a pivotal role in preventing the suspension crisis.

The team also reported on the findings from the racist suspension and expulsion policies implemented by OUSD. They report that Black students are 11 times more likely to be suspended than White students. While Black students represent 26% of the student population, they represent 58% of the office referrals.  White students, on the other hand, represent 11% of the student population but only 4% of student referrals.[34]

BOP does a superb job of communicating the findings of the atrocious policing policies being deployed by incompetent local Board and administrators. They also effectively tell the real-world stories of students and families who experience these racist policies.  They actively protested when OUSD tried to cut $18.8 million from the district budget but refused to cut the $1.5 million budget for maintaining Oakland Police in the schools.[35]

The Student Board members voted to cut the police budget, but were easily ignored because their votes are only advisory and the grown-ups do not want to listen to or act on the truth spoken by the youth. The OUSD school board recognized that the security guards were an opportunity for the community to hire non-professional staff within the schools. From a political perspective, it made sense for Board members to enhance their status in neighborhood communities to hire community members to these jobs.

The BOP teamalso goes beyond simply calling out the travesty of the police presence within their schools, to advocating for specific actions that the adults should implement to address this very real problem. Some of the recommendations of the BOP include:

  1. Implement positive behavior intervention and support practices in all OUSD schools, and rely on restorative justice models as the first line of intervention for mediating student behavior.
  2. Make a far greater investment in counselors and mentors.
  3. Develop and implement a meaningful memorandum of understanding between OPD and OUSD that clearly defines and limits the role of OPD officers in and around campuses, requires OPD to eliminate disproportionate arrest of youth of color, and allows for data review and monitoring by OUSD.
  4. Create a policy internal to OUSD, in partnership with parents, students, and the community, that outlines when and how to call in law enforcement agencies for serious safety threats and criminal behavior, and eliminates unnecessary contacts and disproportionate arrests of Black youth. 

While most of the adults in the K-12 system are blind to the racism within their midst, or complicit in it, the children are not. And they suffer.

The K-12 system manifests a racist orientation from the recruitment and training of teachers to the blaming language, to the governance, to the allocation of human and material resources, to the glitzy and superficial strategic planning with little or no quality implementation or accountability.

As we have discussed in this chapter, there are many connections among the myriad of pathologies of this book to racism. The selfishness and greed of the K-12 leaders also plays an important role in contributing to the many maladies of K-12 education. Until we can fully recognize and define the amorphous nature of structural racism within the K-12 education system, we will continue to talk about what we can talk about; making sure students take and pass Ethnic studies classes, reduce the level of bias in language within our classrooms and so on.

We will need courageous leaders to address some of the real elements of racism in K-12 education such as

  • The disparate allocation of human and material resources to schools with children of color.
  • The segregation of students of color into prison-like schools.
  • Great disparities in funding schools with students of color and schools with white kids.
  • Protection of white entitlement at all costs including placement of students in various school programs that negatively impact students of color.

One key potential solution must involve the professionalization of the teaching profession beginning with the transformation of the woeful schools of education. If the overall pool of teachers is of the highest quality, students will have the chance to succeed academically including children of color. That is not to say that there are still not other major structural and interpersonal racist issues previously discussed that needs to be addressed.  The teacher is the key for student success. We must first and foremost ensure that our students of color get highly capable teachers.

We return to this fundamental premise at every turn.  Teaching is still a second tier or second choice profession. It is not respected at all in the United States, unlike in many Asian and European countries. 

It is imperative that we begin to attract our country’s best and brightest to become teachers. We must train them well, place them on a career ladder, celebrate them, and pay them six-figure salaries, but hold them accountable for quality professional practices and student results.

The current K-12 system naively argues that the systematization and professionalization of teaching will lead to teachers who merely teach to the test in order to demonstrate high quality professional practices and student results.[36] 

This is a vacuous argument.

No amount of raging against the thermometers will alter the need to professionalize teaching.  Teachers who teach to the test can be called out by following their cohort of students into the next year. If these students continue to grow academically, then one can attribute some of that gain to the previous teacher. If the students fail to grow academically, one could argue that the previous year’s teacher had not prepared the students for success.

The development and use of a teacher career ladder will be another important element to the professionalization of teaching.[37]

Teachers should be able to progress through well-defined levels of excellence from novice, to apprentice, to journeyman, to master teacher. Master teachers will be responsible for coaching and evaluating novice and apprentice teachers. Master teachers will also be the pool from which principals are chosen. It will also be important to pay teachers not for time on the job but for their ability to move up the career ladder. Teachers at the highest levels should be paid more than administrators. They should receive 6-figure salaries. 

School Districts should develop retention packages to keep high quality teachers working within their system. If a teacher wishes to move on to a higher-paying private school, school districts should have the option of providing them with a retention package with increased pay and benefits to keep them on board.

The professionalization of teaching will go a long way in ending racism within the K-12 system.

Clearly, the scourge of racism is the common thread that weaves its way through most of the pathologies of K-12 education previously described in this book. The toxic conflation of ill-prepared teachers, “self before service” administrators, white-centric local school boards, unscientific approaches to teaching and learning, poor strategic planning ability and implementation, and many other previously described maladies create a racist culture. Much of it is invisible and never discussed.

We talk about what we can talk about.

It is time for the students to begin to agitate for change as they are getting the short end of the educational stick.  We will learn about the tools that students can use in our next chapter.

A system built upon loyalty and racism continues to selectively deny children of color, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students a quality education.

Our democracy cannot long survive an ignorant population.

The rise of the con-artist Trump is just one small artifact of the abysmal failure of the K-system to educate our young.

But it’s not just a failure to educate. It is literally a War on Youth. This war must end.

Only the children can lead us out of our racist morass

[1] Giroux, Henry. American’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth. 2013. NYU Press.

[2] Giroux, Henry. American’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth. 2013. NYU Press

[3] Zimmer, Amy. Less Qualified Teachers Hinder Schools with Black and Latino Kids: Report. February, 2016. Morningside Heights.

[4] Closing the Achievement Gap. Achieving Success for All Students. Digital Chalkboard.

[5] UNCF. K-12 Disparity Facts and Statistics.

[6]Knudson, Joel.  You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers. September, 2013. American Institute for Research.

[7] Fullan, Michael. California’s Golden Opportunity LCAP’s Theory of Action Problems and Corrections. July,2015. California’s Golden Opportunity. Stuart Foundation.

[8] San Jose Unified School District. San Jose Unified School District Local School Accountability Plan. 2020.

[9] Garden Grove Unified School District. April, 2018. Garden Grove Unified School District Named a 2018 California Exemplary District

[10] CDE. Dataquest. 2020.

[11] Zhao, Yankg. Another education war? The coming debates over social and emotional learning. April, 2020. Phi Delta Kappan.

[12] Solly, Meilan. 158 Resources to understand racism in America. June, 2020. Smithsonian Magazine.

[13] Forte, Jacey. Congress Moves to Make Lynching a Federal Crime After 120 Years of Failure. February, 2020. New York Times.

[14] Blakenship, Mary and Reeves, Richard. From the George Floyd moment to a Black Lives Matter movement, in tweets. July, 2020. Brookings.

[15] Bookwaltrer, Genevieve. Evanston school leaders report ‘ominous threats’ following Fox News coverage of reopening that highlighted approach to students of color. August, 2020. Chicago Tribune.

[16] Black Organizing Project. (BOP). BOP’s People’s Plan for Police-free Schools. 2019.

[17] Burke, Michael. Should police officers be in schools? California education leaders rethink school safety. June, 2020. EdSource.

[18] Amicus, Education, and Youth. More Cops In Schools Won’t Keep Kids Safe. February, 2018. Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review.

[19] Loveless, Tom. 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: Race and school suspensions. March, 2017. Brookings.

[20] Blad, Evie and Mitchell, Corie. Black Students Bear Uneven Brunt of Discipline, Data Show. May, 2018. Education Week.

[21] National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists. Truth in Labeling. Disproportionality in Special Education.  2007

[22] National Center for Education Statistics. Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools. 2020.

[23] National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists. Truth in Labeling. Disproportionality in Special Education.  2007

[24] Thomas, Laura. The Fork Debate. 2005. Educational Leadership.

[25] Smith, Ashley, A. Gov. Newsom signs bill making ethnic studies course a requirement at California State University. August, 2020. EdSource.

[26] Kohil, Rita, et al. The “New Racism” of K–12 Schools: Centering Critical Research on Racism. June, 2017. Review of Research in Education.

[27] Allen, Q. (2010). Racial microaggressions: The schooling experiences of black middle-class males in Arizona’s secondary schools. Journal of African American Males in Education, 1, 125–143.

[28] Finley, Todd. A Look at Implicit Bias and Microaggressions. March, 2019. Edutopia.

[29] Anderson, Melissa, D. How the Stress of Racism Affects Learning. October, 2016. The Atlantic.

[30] Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities : Children in America’s Schools. 1991. New York :Crown Pub.

[31] Seattle Public Schools. Eliminating Opportunity Gaps. 2020.

[32] Rodriguez et al. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles #C611358. Consent decree filed August 12, 1992

[33] Hammond, Linda Darling. Inequality in Teaching and Schooling: How Opportunity Is Rationed to Students of Color in America. 2001. Stanford School of Education.

[34] Black Organizing Project. (BOP). BOP’s People’s Plan for Police-free Schools. 2019.

[35] Harrington, Theresa. Oakland school board votes $18.8 million in cuts, up to 100 layoffs; hears pleas to cut police force. Marc, 2020. EdSource.

[36] Popham, James, W. Teaching to the Test? Educational Leadership. March, 2001. Vol. 58. No. 6.

[37] Baeder, Justin. Career Ladders for Educators. December, 2010. Education Week.


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