Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American, was shot dead in the middle of the afternoon by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Eye witness and police accounts of how the fatal encounter began differ, but three different witnesses reported that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air when Officer Wilson fired the shots that killed him.  As news of the killing and its circumstances spread, Ferguson, a community of 20,000 that is two thirds African American, saw protesters take to the streets where, on the first night, some looting occurred leading the police force to use tear gas to disperse crowds.  On the next several days, different protests were met with similar tactics, and then on August 13th, this happened:

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The Ferguson Police Department, a force on 53 officers, only 3 of whom are African American, made a demonstration of military power at their disposal that shocked many across the nation.  Combat body armor, military fatigues, armored vehicles, high powered weapons and police snipers were deployed to “control” a crowd of protesters that were peacefully assembled.  As night came on, the police decided to disperse the crowd again, and these were scenes that the nation saw:

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Police did not limit their use of force and intimidation to protesters: journalists were harassed and arrested in a McDonald’s for not leaving, and a camera crew from Al-Jazeera that was working behind the police barricades and easily identifiable as reporters was tear gassed:

In response to the events in Ferguson, MO, solidarity protests have happened across the country with protesters displaying the “Don’t Shoot” posture that has become symbolic of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Brown’s death:

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Michael Brown’s death itself and the militarized police response to the following protests raise troubling questions about what it means to educate marginalized populations in the United States today.  Despite legal and legislative victories in the 1950s and 1960s that dismantled America’s legal apartheid state and despite efforts to take White Supremacism out of the mainstream of American social and political thought, it is plainly clear that the lives of minorities, and especially of African American and Latino men, remain in crisis.  This is not to downplay the realities of other racial groups and of women minorities, but it is to highlight a specific set of circumstances that make hope difficult to muster and maintain.  For example, Michael Brown did not have a criminal record.  He was a recent high school graduate, and he was supposed to begin attending college this month.  That didn’t matter, and he was treated as a person of suspect character and potential criminality when Officer Wilson made contact with him for no better reason than he and his friend were walking on the street rather than the sidewalk.  Mr. Brown’s friend and Officer Wilson give very different accounts of how that encounter unfolded (although Mr. Brown’s friend gives a similar accounting of his friend’s final moments as other witnesses), but there never would have been an encounter without Mr. Brown having been approached with suspicion in the first place. This demonstrates a real crisis in American society: to a large portion of the majority population, black men’s dignity and even their lives, do not matter.  It does not matter if Mr. Brown’s life can be shoehorned into a “good kid” narrative, because his presence as a black man on the street was enough to justify suspicion.

Following Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, NPR host Michel Martin of “Tell Me More” hosted a conversation among a panel of African American reporters and commentators.  One of the most striking segments in the discussion was the concept of “The Talk,” a conversation that many African American parents of all social classes have with their sons.  “The Talk” is so specialized a conversation that many young men’s own sisters are unaware that this is advice that their brothers have received, but it was treated by the panelists as largely common knowledge.  In “The Talk,” parents advise their sons about how to behave if approached by the police, how to conduct oneself in a store so as to avoid accusations of theft (always take a receipt and a bag), how to speak to those in positions of authority.  The gist for general consumption is that it is, even in 2014, not good enough for a black or Latino male to be AS good as his white peers; he has to be absolutely beyond reproach, and, even then, he has to prepare himself for how he will act when, not if, he comes under suspicion merely because he is male and of color.

This is not advice that has a duplicate among white parents in the United States.  Racial hatred in the United States may no longer wear the snarling face of Bull Connor and it may not legally enforce segregation, but it still manifests itself in the daily indignities visited upon men of color and in the knowledge that one can always be suspected of criminality simply by minding one’s own business.  A death by a thousand cuts is still deadly.

While the Civil Rights Movement abolished legal apartheid in the United States, segregation remains a persistent problem because income segregation has been rising ever since we abandoned aggressive integration of schools and communities as a matter of policy. Since 1980, the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) has climbed to worrisome levels, and because income and race are proxies, especially in urban communities, communities that are segregated by income are defacto segregated by race.  Mr. Brown’s high school, for example, had only two graduation gowns for the entire senior class to share for photographs.  Young men like Michael Brown are born into communities starved of resources, in possession of crumbling institutions, and segregated from political constituencies that wield influence over decision makers, and when they, through strength of will, talent and with support of responsible adults in their lives, succeed, they are still entitled to be treated as criminal suspects first.

In addition to the individual and collective slights of institutionalized racism, the entire community of Ferguson was given first-hand account of what can happen when people protest such treatment, especially in marginalized communities.  While the militarization of the police in America is not a new subject, it has rarely been on display as obviously and shockingly as in Ferguson, Missouri on August 13th.  Such equipment used to intimidate and harass protesters and journalists in a community of barely 20,000 highlights the disturbing ways in which police forces across the country have been turned into para-military forces and are aided and abetted by federal programs designed to get surplus military hardware into the hands of even small town police departments.  While these resources have most commonly been used, unnecessarily, in drug related raids, the police in Ferguson decided to put them in full view of the nation, making visible the military style police tactics that have afflicted high poverty communities for some time.  It is not merely the presence of such arsenals and their potential use that is worrying, it is the fact that such arsenals represent a tragic shift away from the proper role of policing as serving and protecting a community to the role of occupying that same community.  Officers expected to use and deploy these tactics are themselves transformed via training and experience into a force tasked with putting down disorder; hence, police snipers on armed vehicles taking aim at lawfully assembled protesters and police harassing, arresting and tear gassing journalists.

What has changed is not the treatment of communities (the ACLU made it very clear that militarized police forces take heavy tolls on communities of color), but we can no longer pretend that we do not know.  Even a police department of 53 officers has high powered weaponry and armored vehicles, and they are willing to use them.  The consequences are appalling, and the fact that a democratic society tolerates those consequences is even worse.

Which is what brings up the question of education and what it means to appeal to schooling this society.  School is an enterprise that is premised around hope and purpose.  In order to truly engage with the operation of school, a child has to believe that there are reasons and purposes that make sense and has to have hope that school will lead somewhere desirable.  For very young children, it is possible to appeal to their need for connection and to their desire for adult approval, and, even then, deprivations from extreme poverty and lack of familial resources and stability can greatly complicate teachers’ work.  For adolescents, however, those complications are layered with the child’s own awareness of how the world has worked around him.  Seeing and believing that education holds promise when one has been subjected to “stop and frisk” policies while simply talking to friends on the street or when one’s neighbors have been subjected to military styled raids by the police takes extraordinary optimism and an ability to project a future that is not based on local experience of family and friends.

Such matters are made even harder when an unarmed teen is killed in the streets and when the protests in response are put down with a show of military power in a town of only 20,000.

That we blame young men raised within and conscious of such injustice for having trouble with optimism is one of our country’s cruelest jokes.  Education in this context is necessarily a complex enterprise with no easily scaled solutions, requiring a lot of hard work with each student as an individual.

But a growing amount of our attention in urban education is being consumed by charter school chains who claim, in essence, to be miracle factories.  As proof, they point to student populations that are largely minority and to scores on standardized tests that match or exceed suburban school systems.  Praised by politicians and recipients of lavish funding from venture philanthropists, such schools often enjoy well-appointed facilities and offer well-crafted optics of minority students in well-disciplined classrooms.  On the surface, their claims of having “figured out” urban education look plausible, but the reality is much less miraculous than that.

First, while students in most states are awarded seats in charter schools by lottery, it is not true that the population applying is identical to the general population in the school district.  At a minimum, such students have parents and/or guardians who are aware of and desirous of the promise of a charter school.  Second, student attrition at the charter school networks that claim such miraculous results is typically higher than in district schools, sometimes shockingly so, and the patterns of attrition are not random leading to classes with significantly fewer students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, who have learning disabilities and who are English language learners.  Third, many such schools do not “backfill” vacated seats which means that, paired with non-random attrition, the remaining classes of students are those who entered the school more likely to perform well on standardized tests.  Fourth, many of these schools dedicate substantial time to test preparation and to creating a culture where standardized test performance is the sine qua non of their mission.  In New York State, fully public schools are not allowed to spend more than 1-2% of the academic year in test preparation, but no such limit exists for charter schools.  These are all matters I tried to remind former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of when he enthused about Success Academy’s recent test scores on Twitter:

Mr. Klein is intelligent enough to know the meaning of the figures and reporting that I put in front of him.  He also knows that “replicating” the results of Success Academy is an inherently limited prospect because even if the charter school chain expanded to take in all of the children that it is willing to enroll and keep, that will leave all of the students Ms. Moskowitz’s schools have pushed out over the years.  Mr. Klein’s call to “replicate” this model is a call that will leave fully public schools full of students who are MORE poor, MORE disabled and LESS proficient in English than they are now even with New York City’s shockingly high RISI.  And I have never known Mr. Klein or his allies to advocate for funneling more academic resources, better teacher support or upgraded facilities to the district schools that would remain in such a system.  Indeed, as Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, Governor Cuomo has made funding for fully public schools worse across the board without a peep of protest from Mr. Klein.

And it is important  also to consider what is being praised as a “remarkable” accomplishment.  The Success Academy chain does have noteworthy test scores, but those are inherently limited markers of student achievement and capabilities.  According to my colleague Dr. Christopher Tienken at Seton Hall University, for a multiple choice standardized test to thoroughly measure a SINGLE discrete skill, it takes twenty-five questions:

Either a test is thoroughly-designed and covers very few skills, or it covers many skills poorly. While students in the “miracle” charter schools gain very high test scores on the standardized tests, the more time in school that is aimed at preparing for the test formats, the less time is spent on creative, critical and flexible thinking.

What is galling, therefore, is not that such schools demonstrate achievement in standardized testing measures.  What is galling is that they are touted as having found “THE” answer when it comes to educating students who live within urban poverty, and that they have received both political and philanthropic favoritism even as their models for accomplishment push more and more disadvantaged students into zoned schools that are starved for resources and community.  Meanwhile, so long as these schools are touted as having found “the secret sauce” society at large continues to ignore the deprivations of poverty, insisting that with enough “grit” ANYONE can climb out of poverty.  Taxes don’t get raised on the wealthy.  We ignore how wages have stagnated for decades, the near destruction of the lower middle class and how a college education is more a means of not falling into chronic economic insecurity than a way to get ahead.

Most importantly, we can continue to ignore how income segregation results in racial segregation.  We can pretend that communities which are predominantly minority are not routinely treated as if everyone in them is a criminal suspect.  We can convince ourselves that there is no society wide responsibility to expand opportunity, alleviate the deprivations of poverty, fully fund our education system or directly confront the racism that still plagues how our institutions interact with people of color. In the minds of today’s education “reformers” none of that matters – schools and teachers and kids are supposed to climb up from underneath all of it with nothing more than a tough attitude and a battery of standardized tests.  And throughout all of this, teachers and students are offered no additional support, just more testing and more responsibility, and when the results do not happen quickly, teachers and students are labeled as failures.  It is like adding extra weight to Sisyphus’ burden and then blaming him for the existence of the stone.

Education is a hope-based enterprise.  The most dedicated and talented teachers can inspire hope in the young people under their care, but if society shares no responsibility for that hope, it cannot last.  Michael Brown is dead because he lived in a society that demanded he, and every man with his skin color, prove his innocence at all times.  The community that rose up to protest that fact and to insist that his life had value because ALL lives have value, was subject to militarized police brutality. Until we demand that the powerful in this country stop pushing comic book narratives and stop insisting that all we need for our urban youth is a “no excuses” school, until we value the lives of all of our children, until we admit to collective responsibility, in partnership with teachers and schools, for children, and until we pry racism out of our common institutions, this will not get better.

Those who look for simple answers that demand nothing of themselves and everything of teachers and students perpetuate this cycle.

4 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?

  1. Pingback: Shouldn’t Education and Learning Be the Same Thing? | User Generated Education

  2. Reblogged this on Daniel Katz, Ph.D. and commented:

    I guess I am reblogging quite a bit this week….

  3. Pingback: Amplifying Ferguson and Race in Child Welfare | robertlatham.wordpress.com

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