The scant mention of Democrats’ official platform on K-12 education on the main stage at the Democratic National Convention last week was clearly a political effort to distance the party from the fray.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has backed off many hallmarks of the accountability era that started with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 under the first George W. Bush administration and ended when that law was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act last year. Many approaches, like teacher evaluation, simply did not work and caused irreparable harm to teachers and children. Others, like charter expansion and school closures, did not live up to the promise Clinton hoped for.
In 2014, Bill Clinton forecast his wife’s evolution when he said that charter schools have not held up their “original bargain.” Hillary Clinton the following year doubled down on her husband’s remarks, stating, “Most charter schools … don't take the hardest-to-teach kids. And if they do, they don't keep them.” Leading up to the DNC, reform-friendly language was scrubbed from the official platform. And Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in her remarks at the DNC (pdf) that Hillary Clinton will “reset education policy to focus on skills like creativity and critical thinking, not more testing.”
Education reform is clearly a part of the Obama legacy that Clinton doesn’t outwardly want to adopt. But rebuking education reform is an insufficient strategy to address districts and states that continuously failed to serve black and brown children before the NCLB. Black folk need an alternative, and reform must be redefined. Instead of reforming the reforms, let’s do something we’ve never done before:
Let’s create a system rooted in the people who need change the most. Let’s adopt a philosophy centered on black and brown people.
In his classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, philosopher and educator Paulo Freire said, “If true commitment to the people, involving the transformation of the reality by which they are oppressed, requires a theory of transforming action, this theory cannot fail to assign the people a fundamental role in the transformation process.”
Freire believed that transformation requires an educational system rooted in the people who need change. The choice movement, for instance, will always fall short in urban areas because the system of thought wasn’t centered on black or brown worldviews.
Adam Smith, forefather of the political economy, might appreciate the choice- and standards-based curriculum movements that emphasize competition, productivity and rugged individualism. Filtered by the works of Milton Friedman, the educational-choice movement in particular has been applied so loosely that basic ethics and notions of fairness have been trumped by stereotypical corporate values that fly in the face of what black, brown and girl students need.
As it was inevitable for school leaders to call themselves CEOs, it was also inescapable that students and teachers would be viewed instrumentally in terms of their productivity. Suspension, expulsion and mass firings became practical and acceptable means of showing “growth.”
First “poverty didn’t matter.” Then, all of a sudden, it did, and schools needed wraparound services. The race of the teacher didn’t matter. Now reform organizations are looking for black and brown teachers and leaders en masse. (For the descendants of slaves, “human capital” problems take on a whole different meaning.) Expulsion and suspension were a necessary evil in order to develop a positive school culture. Now we need restorative-justice programs.
All of the aforementioned mistakes were predicted, aired and fought and could have been avoided. But the fidelity to ideology evidences the stubbornness of white privilege that comes out of a Eurocentric model.
The inefficiencies of white privilege cost us so much more than dollars. With every reform from the choice frame, we add to the bureaucracy of white institutions built to help black communities. Consequently, each institution and approach attempts to reform the prior without questioning the bedrock on which they were all built upon: white supremacy and patriarchy. After every iteration, the only remaining factors are the base ideology and system of oppression.
Audre Lorde said, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”
Let’s stop patching the previous error. If we can build a reform approach and invest billions around a white male, we should be able to do so around Afrocentric people and philosophies.
Black and brown folk don’t need “reform.” We need an alternative that we define.