The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The education-reform movement is too white to do any good

This scene from “Won’t Back Down”, with Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, finally puts the megaphone in the right hands. (Photo by Kerry Hayes/2012 Walden Media LLC)

At this point, it seems like everyone agrees what “education reformer” means. The phrase conjures Teach for America: messianic, white Ivy Leaguers wearing thick-rimmed glasses and speaking in questions, or the Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicle “Won’t Back Down.” For some, the hallowed education reformer battles the forces that are reluctant to change — which, in too many minds, looks like black and brown families under the hallucinogenic spell of labor unions, unwittingly fighting against their own interests.

This is ludicrous. There’s not quite yet an internecine war within the current crusade, but black education reformers are beginning to revolt. A group of us convened on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education this month to identify the most pressing challenges in the reform movement — and to reclaim the brand and identity of “reformer.”

Let’s stipulate that, yes, change is badly needed. Call it “reform” if you like: Charter schools, curriculum changes (Common Core), testing, and accountability are not inherently bad things. They can bring justice.

But let’s also stipulate that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic. The great educator Benjamin E. Mays famously said, “I would rather go to hell by choice than to stumble into heaven.” Reform is being done to communities of color. That’s why saying you’re a black education reformer effectually elicits charges of “acting white” from black communities.

One of the meeting’s attendees, Sharhonda Bossier, co-Founder and chief fellowship officer of Families for Excellent Schools, believes black and brown communities want change, but those very communities are skeptical of tokenism and duplicity. She said parents essentially say, “Don’t think you can fool us just because you put a black face on a white agenda.” Bossier reacted, “Sometimes I have to look back and ask myself, ‘Am I causing damage to my communities?’”

It’s a legitimate question. Reforming through school closure has a disparate impact on communities of color. Even though African Americans make up only 43 percent of all Chicago Public School students, they represented 87 percent among the 50 schools that were closed last year. Why use it as a technique if it disproportionally harms the communities you endeavor to serve? In New Orleans, where I have worked, alumni and local community organizations struggled to get approvals for their charter applications. D.C. charter schools suspended students at much higher rates than their traditional counterparts (and that’s a bad thing).

Diversity removes doubt of racial bias, explicit or implicit. So when black and brown people are largely absent from positions of power, the entire reform movement loses credibility and accrues suspicion. Black education reformers struggle to connect with the very communities we’re members of. The overarching sentiment among attendees at the aforementioned meeting was that black leadership is missing from education reform. Consequently, “reform” has become a dirty word in some communities.

Again, parents of color want reform. Polls conducted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options demonstrate this. Nonetheless, the recent victories in mayoral races in Boston, New York and Newark appear to be referendums against education reform.  Still, I believe the branding of “reform” by heavily funded, predominately white organizations as a “takeover” movement reinforces the notion that it actually is a takeover. In addition, teachers unions have leveraged the movement’s penchant for paternalism to further demonize the term “reform.” Parents of color want change; they just don’t want white reform.

Erika McConduit, CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, says, “Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that white organizations are heavily funded to do community engagement, but since [white organizations] lack the ability to effectively implement, they then come to black organizations to discuss the work.” Black organizations join efforts after the die has been cast. But black communities and educational leaders understand when “community engagement” is merely a euphemism for how to deal with black folk.

More research is needed on who receives funding in terms of race and geography. We need data on who categorically is fired and hired. Who’s awarded charter schools? Nevertheless, to be effective, black educators must differentiate themselves from white reformers.

I’ve never fully embraced the moniker of reformer because the legacy of black educators has been to innovate, expand options and recruit the next generation of teachers. The label of black education reformer is somewhat an oxymoron. Particularly in the South, public education is a direct result of blacks’ struggle for control of their own schools, of which blacks worked with multiracial coalitions of faith-based organizations, white philanthropists and industrialists as well as progressive elected officials to create a portfolio of independent, faith-based and publically funded institutions. Now that was reform!

Still, black educators always had to combat the paternalistic tendencies of our allies and antagonists. (The seminal reading on this topic comes from James D. Anderson’s “The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935.”) In fact, the large bureaucracies of giant urban school districts can be another variety of this phenomenon. Traditional urban districts make it difficult for teachers and leaders to develop intimate and responsive relationships with students, communities and parents of color. We need decentralization.

The status quo simply won’t suffice, but neither does the bombastic shouting of crusaders like Michele Rhee and Diane Ravitch. Between those two camps, black and brown families miss out on nuanced approaches for change. And, in the polarized debate, neither camp acknowledges its responsibility toward educational failure.

For example, no bloc owns the teacher racial gap problem. Woodrow Wilson reports that if current trends hold, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of five percent of the total teacher workforce by 2020. At the same time, the percentage of students of color will likely exceed 50 percent in the fall of 2014.

Union-based, Teach-for-America-led, and traditional as well as non-traditional districts proudly tout what they’re doing to address teacher-racial gap, but all have shown limited results. Teachers of color should not blindly support any one faction when racial privilege looks the same in every camp. Yet, if a person of color speaks out against injustice, he or she is branded as a defector or collaborator.

A teacher at a charter school revealed at our meeting that she was thoroughly ostracized by her mostly white organization for simply bringing up diversity issues that parents of her students expressed. Now this teacher feels she has to leave her organization on her own terms. This example is a metaphor. Speaking truth to power can have serious repercussions on funding, professional advancement and political appointment.

Herein lies the burden of the black educator. Black educators will continue to improve the craft of teaching and leadership, provide quality options, make more equitable systems and teach many of our white counterparts about privilege. Exclusivity, inequitable funding and bad public relations got us to our current state of education.

We need less “reform” and more social justice.