Kandice Sumner in the September 2015 TED Talk “How America’s Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty” talks about her survivor’s remorse. She recounts being bussed into school in an affluent and predominately white school district from a neighborhood she characterizes as black and brown. What I believe she shares is not particularly a guilt that she somehow got out and others were left behind but that one could have essentially picked a number of kids out of her neighborhood besides herself, given them similar accesses and resources and they would perform as successfully as she did. Survivor's guilt, while it is painful and its effects are scarring, is an experience shared by many who have been through intensely traumatic experiences such as war or divorce or immigration.
What is unique, however, about what Sumner is sharing is that even while returning to environments from which she once sought refuge in order to teach, the feeling of guilt does not easily subside unaddressed. It can, for example, code an underlying sense of urgency in daily classroom engagement. It is in her voice and facial expressions when she presents in the TED talk itself. It is the undercurrent behind the unique classroom library she created for the students, which she created via DonorsChoose.org so that students could experience the philanthropy of strangers in tanigle ways. What she is expressing overtly and inadvertently is that the initial trauma of going in search of opportunity can be present when person returns back to their community of origin. We can what of the experience is generative, like building a library in a classroom and introducing modern philanthropic endeavors. This awareness can creatively colors future learning. Sumner took on a burden that she doesn't want her students to have to face: Leaving their formative communities to get something which is rightfully theirs, a good education.
The Gap in the Achievement vs. Opportunity Gap Conversation
In today’s class, I screened the Sumner TED talk and discussed the reading by Diane Ravitch, “The Facts about the Achievement Gap.” After class, two students stayed back to speak with me: one African-American, one white. The white student gave me a sheet of paper onto which he was writing notes the entire class. The others passed their daily prompts up five minutes after class started as per usual. He kept his until the period closed. He asked if I have seen the Ken Robinson, “Changing Education Paradigms,” TED Talk. In his summary of it, after I shared that I hadn’t seen that particular one, he shared that schools were based on models of Enlightenment thinking rather than what students would need to learn when they encountered the real world, what they need for success now.
This notion that the mind is separate from the body and that academic subjects need to be divided into nice, neat, digestible categories has hindered holistic ways of knowing. In response to the discussion on the achievement gap being grounded in standardized testing models, I believe the student was making a connection between what on paper we are told are markers of proficiency versus markers of proficiency in social practice, everyday life. Our models of performance success, of what demonstrating knowledge looks like are putting us into intractable boxes.
The African-American student voiced frustration at what he said he continually hears as disparaging remarks about how inner-city students perform. He said he hears the same conversations, the same ignorance around the performance of black students versus white students, impoverished schools versus affluent schools. He is not sure if anything is changing, if change is even possible. “Unless you’ve sat in a public school classroom, it is hard to understand what really is going on,” he said as he walked out.
Ravitch and I share the same frustrations around how the conversation around these issues are addressed. Ravitch in her essay cites the alarmist tone with which the dialogue always begins, “Claim: The achievement gaps are large and getting worse,” (Greene & Lidinsky, 361). What it obscures are issues around how we are measuring success. How are we asking for performance to be demonstrated and under what time conditions? What else are we not discussing?
This is the fresh new voice that Sumner adds, for me. She shares that the educational and democratic systems we utilize today, higher education included, were built on and bought via the very bodies that were excluded from participating in them. In 2006, a report was released that revealed Brown University’s linkages to the slave trade. An editorial by the New York Times titled “Brown University’s Debt to Slavery,” noted that Rhode Island in the mid-18th century served as the northern hub to the slave trade. Slavery permeated almost every facet of life in the small state of which enslaved person made up 10 percent. Thus, the university although not having owned enslaved peoples directly, was not exempt. The Committee on Slavery and Justice at Brown discovered that “some 30 members of Brown’s governing board owned or captained slave ships, and donors sometimes contributed slave labor to help in construction.”
The labor that established the very institutions from which we, including myself, have benefited has been historically excluded from those same institutions by overt and subtle forms of racism and classism. Sumner shares that the irony of it all is that the subsequent attempts to fix the achievement gap by trying to close the opportunity gap is in essence retrofitting designs, “now sanitized,” back onto the populations from whom they derived. She makes synonymous public education with what she calls poverty insurance that is “keeping poor kids poor.”
Sumner is bringing attention to the cycles of poverty that many students in public school face. There is one thing I would like to note, I am deeply bothered by ways of thinking that makes all of what happens in public schools shaded over with decrypted overtones and apocalyptic. Momentary despair is one thing. Yet, continually seeing only problems in our schooling systems harms the noble work teachers, students, administrators, and elected officials are doing everyday to support learning in this country. What conversations do that stress dilapidated schools and in-fighting between states and administrators is overlook the wellspring of creativity, ingenuity and knowledge that is produced in those environments. For, the majority of our population goes to public school. Something has to be going right somewhere. Deficit model thinking where we beam a spotlight at the negative reinforces more negativity. Growth follows attention. Can we begin thinking in an asset-based fashion where we look for what is going well. Actually, can we also look at what is doing okay and reproduce more of that? Anything but thinking there is nothing salvageable in the majority of our learning environments.
Two Proposed Solutions
Students as Researchers: Asking the Doers What to Do
Question: Has anyone ever asked public school students themselves what they see as solutions to close the achievement gap? What they see as solutions for their own personal and academic development?
We are discussing the achievement gap as if the very people about whom we are talking cannot hear us--as if they are not thinking or attempting to better themselves in their own ways. Have we questioned students about or taught them how to investigate their own models for self-improvement? Knowledge is a funny thing. It opens as if one were knocking on a door. What if we treated students as if they had both the lock and key? Both the information they seek and the way to get there?
From there we could aggregate. I know, for me personally, when I have been stuck in a rut or during one of my previous bouts with unemployment--which is another story for another day--I found that the way I have lifted myself back into healthy and meaningful contribution has been by setting up and implementing--albeit haphazard at times--a program. There is an aim. There are benchmarks. There are creative ways to code activities. And, most importantly, there are colored markers!
Part of what we continually hear in conversation about the achievement gap is the perspective of the politician, the school official, the teacher, the scholar or the parent. However, what if we equipped students to be researchers on their own educational conditions? What if we equipped students to create their own improvement plans? Now, what the adults in the room could do is help provide creative constraints such as needing to include on teacher, one staff member, one family member and one member of their peer group in their improvement plans for accountability. We could supplement their plans, help massage it and assist them in organizing resources from a set pool we create to aid it. That pool could include both monetary and non-monetary resources such as internship opportunities, access to coaches, rides to activities, tickets to a play, and other in-kind gifts.
The issues in education are so complex. You can think you are solving one problem and another one is brewing. The web of factors are so tangled that it takes someone who have traversed the knots in their small, individual way to speak to the multi-layered approaches necessary to surf. If you want to learn to surf, you ask the surfer, not the guy running the hotdog stand at the beach. However, we are letting businessmen, for example, tell us, educators, how to surf, how students need to learn. Why not ask the learners? They are doing it at least five days out of the week.
Ask Our Neighbors: Engaging Local Professionals in Facilitating Class Close to Home
Citing Thomas B. Timar of the University of California, Ravitch writes, “Another reason for the persistence of the gaps [educational disparities] is that policy makers have invested in strategies for thirty years that are ‘misdirected and ineffectual,” managing to keep urban schools in a state of ‘policy spin,’ bouncing from one idea to another but never attaining the learning conditions or social capital that might make a difference,” (365). What Timar highlights is that to solve persistent issues we need new strategies, ones that address the underlying drivers for disparities, ex. Socioeconomic, political and health concerns.
Kennedy famous lines at his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” could be a way to rethink the change-makers in the fight for educational betterment. While, yes, there are many ways to problematize Kennedy’s call for increased civic engagement, and in no way do I mean to suggest governmental bodies should be off the hook in the effort to improve schools, it does align with a renewed focus on local level initiatives.
I believe in oversight. Governmental bodies aid accountability and sustainability of our educational efforts in terms of both in resources and institutional memory. What I mean to suggest is that if we want change in our schools, we also have to include in the design process the community level, on-the-ground resources. Timar points to initiatives like the Comer Process, developed b Dr. James Comer of Yale University, that addresses wraparound approaches to school improvement that weave in social, psychological, emotional and academic supports for the students. One way to do this is by employing the very people who know the students the best, their parents and neighbors.
In our increasingly dispersed family units, it is hard to argue that neighbors would necessarily know a student the best. What I mean by best is having the opportunity for ongoing interaction and fitting well into the daily schedule of the student in question. What if professionals in their immediate communities volunteered their time after work for just one hour a week to facilitate/co-facilitate a class, really a holding-space session where they sat present to ask what students learned that day in science? It is not about being knowledge experts. It’s about engagement and ongoing spaces for hashing and rehashing what one is learning as it connects to people’s lived experience.
It is not about putting on the formality of teacher or after school instructor or any number of the tightly-woven roles we give ourselves. Putting on the role of the inexpert is expressing alternatively the commitment to hold space for the production of new knowledge. It holds the space to see what happens in ongoing and renewed engagement.
The kinds of questions this community-professional would ask would be: What did you learn today in school? Okay, what do you still not understand about it? The professional’s goal is not to answer the question but leave space for questions. Further the professional could show how the topics the students discussed that day relate organically to the kind of things that come up in the workplace as it relates to biology, chemistry, etc. Nursing covers much of that I am sure in expected and unexpected ways.
It is not about being experts or having the answers. It is about holding space for questions and for the students to have another touch point with the piece of information. When I worked as a developmental specialist for the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Science (ODASIS) at Rutgers University helping students of color and working-class students prepare for medical school, one of the office practices we utilized was to encourage students to have five - seven touchpoints with whatever topic they were studying. It was to aid the process of moving information from short term to long term memory. We were teaching students to know things by heart, by repeated encounters.
While I am admittedly a bit old school and romantic in holding the idea of people opening their doors to one another, facilitating such hold-the-space sessions at someone’s home may or may not be feasible in this day and age. However, employing the assistance of local colleges, local religious institutions or community centers in making affordable community spaces and classrooms available could be strategic way to utilize and leverage surrounding resources.
Holding-the-space sessions, as I am envisioning it, would foster strengthened communities and help move the student-teacher-facilitator hat around the room. It would de-center learning as something that doesn’t just happen in school buildings and move it into the classroom of life. If I wanted to practice a new knitting pattern, I can practice it with students locally who were interested in learning, too. That would also give me the opportunity to encounter youth more expert than I at knitting, and thus exemplify how organically the role of teacher, master, student, novice moves around in one’s lifetime.
This notion of holding space for community learning, for me, has its roots in the stories I heard and read about such as the meals-on-wheels programs of the Black Panther Party and the Garbage Offensive of the Young Lords. The Young Lords in East Harlem enacted initiatives where they picked up trash in the neighborhood that was left rotting in the streets due to discriminatory sanitation practices in the city.
Modeled after the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords were a civil rights group comprised of Nuyoricans and Puerto Rican migrants seeking to on a local level make changes that impacted the daily lives of people around them. “They took over a church and ran a free children’s breakfast program. They seized hospital equipment and moved it to where it was needed most. They went through neighborhoods testing for lead paint poisoning and tuberculosis,” Jessica Lee writes for the New York Times. [Click here for link].
The Black Panther Party gets and unfair rap. All of their exemplary community work over the years gets codified as solely militant rather than civic activities. AtlantaBlackStar.com has a list of eight Black Panther Party programs, they find, more empowering than federal government programs listed here.
Emphasizing the notion of "’revolutionary intercommunalism’ [as a] strategy of building community service programs or ‘survival programs,’ the Party’s aim was to “develop positive institutions within the community to help individuals meet their needs.” [Read more here (PBS) ]. I also want to be cautious here in not overlooking that even when we mean the best in our efforts to champion community change and educational improvements, harm can be done. Elaine Brown speaks about the disparities in the treatment of women and the violence their bodies had to endure as members of the Party. [Read more here (LA Times)] .
Additionally, I would like to stress the importance of federal oversight in educational initiatives. We need agencies that keep us accountable. However, when they are doing more unintended harm rather than good, we need the community to send up ideas and initiatives to help course correct. We also must acknowledge, equally, that there have been agencies that were part of obscuring the benefits of grassroots initiatives such as the following Black Panther programs: Disabled Persons Services/Transportation and Attendant, Drug/Alcohol Abuse Awareness Program, Child Development Center, Free Dental Program, GED Classes, Martial Arts Program, Visiting Nurses Program, and even a free shoe program. [Citation here].
In the cradle to career continuum debate about needing more people from the business sector to come in to help train students for the careers of tomorrow, we speak as if business people are out there somewhere and not next door or down the block. Continually thinking the answer is out there somewhere causes us to miss the valuable resources surrounding us--and take it from me as someone who went to boarding school at the age of 14, ninety miles from home. The issue I am trying to raise here is one of extraction and displacement. If we don’t have to remove kids from their homes, let’s not.
By having local professionals volunteer an hour a week after their jobs, students have a more well-rounded educational experience. The nuances in engagement would assist in the more long-term objective of moving students from learner to practitioner. That includes ending class five minutes early some days because the instructor’s feet are hurting and, for example, being a nurse requires good shoes and being on your feel most of the day. Paying attention to the small and incidental things in being a professional, puts a face a career field and could help students practice wearing better shoes so that they can have a good pair in the closet at the ready when employment comes knocking.