Education reform is in a bad place right now, but the conditions that justify it are as strong as ever. Constantly under attack by people who want us to believe public schools are not failing (or, if they are, its through no fault of their own), reformers rarely pierce that bubble with the cold facts. Even when we do we are subject to a legion of system defenders with goal: to take us out.
I’ve encountered a few personas in education advocacy that do more to set us further back than to advance ideas that will change the game for poor students, and I think it’s worth sharing.
But first, a little context…
If we are being real, the American education hegemony is a plantation. Black people didn’t invent it, we don’t own it, yet we are asked to turn our children over to it every day without any expectation of having real power over it. The people with the greatest control over the system are its bureaucrats and its workers, who, in tandem, show no interest in us having options outside of the ones they profit from. They box us into a definition of public education that only includes state-run schools, and that requires them to box out the voices of reformers.
The logical conclusion of their arguments is that we should be permanent wards of the same state that is killing us in the streets, in the courts, in the law, and in almost every area of life activity. As state workers, their goal is to keep our per pupil income even when we are dissatisfied with their performance or results.
We are to be their captives. Any attempt at escape is met with hostility, condescension, and correction. If we speak any ill of their system, or make any designs on better systems, they send out the overseers to put us in our place.
So, what are the personas I see most?
Let’s put them in three categories: The slavers, the lambs, and the lions.
First, the overseers
Among the overseers are college professors, writers, activists, and Afroturf organizations funded to convince us the best we can do is remain captive to a system that has always sorted us into inferior classrooms, led by lesser qualified teachers, and governed by boards elected in low turnout elections mostly through the support of the public workers in the traditional public schools.
Some of these folks are simply charlatans. These are the people who are intellectually promiscuous enough to write semi-conscious pieces about the need for education reform today, only to later write long, incoherent pieces against reform when a different paycheck emerges from the vast network of folks funding the education stasis movement.
Then there are the duplicitous people. They have their own kids in private schools (or are the products of private schools themselves), or even in charter schools, but become warriors for abstract arguments against giving lesser people access to the same educational options they are privileged enough to enjoy.
My favorite folks are the Afroplastics. These folks often childless, young, college-educated, and they often discovered their blackness in college (and often at selective white colleges).
They read a few black books and use them to manufacture a designer line of Afrobabble that either misunderstands, or misappropriates, black thought. They’re talented enough to make freedom sound like oppression, and oppression sound noble. To them, giving poor black parents more options when state-run schools fail is somehow an attack on black communities. Black people operating new schools outside of the state-run system is treason. Freeing black children from the same state that is killing them in other arenas is an affront to our wonderful government.
Until you harness what intellectual powers you might have to present an honest and thorough critique of the valid and documented inadequacies of the traditional public schools, including the racist history of their unions, you are farting in strong winds.
Second, the lambs
Then there are the folks who collect education reform paychecks but can’t be found when our proposals face stiff opposition by hostile public workers (or their agents) who fear our success will be their demise.
Often these little lambs are our good middle class people who see finding nuance as a sign of broad mindedness and civility. They seek common ground with people coming to ruin them, or find nuance in every argument against education reform. They want to be liked by all the wrong people and have almost a self-loathing appreciation for hearing arguments against their own.
When the real fight emerges, these folks are of no use to us. They are the best targets for our opposition because they specialize in taking punches without ever landing one.
For instance, it’s almost cliche now for people paid by Teach For America to eat from the TFA table and then realize it’s better for their curriculum vitae to sit silent while their employer is attacked, or worse, to join the chorus of folks coming for their employers head.
Silence is complicity.
Reform should fire complicit people because defending the lives and futures of children is too important for us to waste resources on bystanders and moral relativists. There are such things as fighting words, but only fighters will ever recognize them.
Finally, the lions
This group is small. There are too few people who stand boldly on the premise of reform (that our schools must do better). Yet, research tells us repeatedly that our kids are in schools that just aren’t ready for them. These schools produce economic divisions and racial strife while diminishing black minds and limiting human potential. The suffering is real.
I’m resistant to name the real lions, our champions for black educational freedom, because no one deserves a cookie for telling the damn truth about the grossly inefficient public schools.
In 2016, black people are the richest we’ve ever been, the most educated, and the best positioned to be our own truth tellers, so if the hardest thing we have to do is stand in the face of a racist, ill-performing state and tell it the truth about it’s inability to educate our children, we have it far better than our ancestors.
We should remember that when we encounter slavers, overseers, charlatans, and Afroplastics.
Every morning a great number of black and brown people dedicate themselves to working in new schools that are creating new opportunities to learn. There are also millions of black and brown people who have benefited from these new schools. These people represent an educational minority, and like most minorities, they can’t be help if their leaders are constantly marginalized or too timid to affirm their voices, their right to exist, their right to be self-determining, and their right to an education of their own choosing.
Our opponents eat lamb for dinner. We’re better off sending them lions for breakfast.