Sunday, July 6, 2014

All Minority Schools

Last Tuesday the Atlantic became the gazillionth news outlet to report that this coming fall, the student population of the US will be less than 50% white.
There's remarkably little comment on or discussion of this, even in the Atlantic's article. I can think of several reasons for this to go unremarked.

1) It's not exactly news because it's been coming for quite a while. It would be like throwing a party and hollering, "Look we have tree!" when that sapling that's been growing in your yard for decades finally passes the ten foot tall mark. It didn't exactly sneak up on you.

2) People who prefer to think of themselves (and have others think of them) as Not Racist would like to say it doesn't matter. Kids are kids. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. This doesn't change a thing.

3) This has already been the reality on the ground in many places. On the local level, many schools have been there for decades.

4) Lots of people know the information, but aren't sure what it really means.

I will readily place myself in group 4. I teach in a rural/small town school district. On the map, we look like part of Appalachia, but we don't think of ourselves that way. It is highly unlikely that our white students will be a majority minority any time soon. But let me conjecture about some implications for the nation's public school system with no majority majority.

We Need To Talk About Assimilation

A large chunk of US education has always been about a benign form of assimilation. If you wanted to get ahead in the US, you had to learn to adopt not just the knowledge and skill base of the dominant culture, but the ethics and values instead. Which we've generally defined as white, Christian, middle classish. Education as a door to opportunity meant education as a way to learn to act like a "regular American." To fit in. We need to talk about that.

Actually, in economically strapped areas, we've been having a version of this conversation for a while. Is our job as schools to prepare our students to help strengthen this area, or to prepare them to escape it? Because the skills and culture they need to do well here are not exactly the same as what they need to do well "out there." My first year of teaching was in hugely diverse city, but in parent conferences I had Hispanic parents who demanded that I respect their home culture and others who demanded that I not "hold their child back" by expecting anything different from what I expected from the white kids.

In language studies, we talk about idioms, dialects, and standard usage. Dialects let you speak easily with people who share the dialect, but standard usage is supposed to be a version of the language that works everywhere. We used to just call standard usage "correct." We're getting smarter about the biases embedded in that judgment, but we still wrestle with it, and it's the mini version of the challenge we now face.

It's a two-part problem. What should be the role of learning to operate within the dominant culture in education and society, and how do you even identify the dominant culture in a hugely diverse salad such as ours?

Different Schools Are More Different

Demographically, my local school doesn't look much different than it did fifty years ago. If anything it is less diverse than a century ago when the town was filling with Italian and Slovakian immigrants who settled literally on the other side of the tracks in a neighborhood nicknamed "the Bloody Third" (because you know how Those People are always fighting and settling their problems with knives).

We've operated for decades on the assumption that regular American schools look the same-- a bunch of white kids with a smattering of some minority students. In a sense, desegregation was about making all schools look like that-- a bunch of white kids with a smattering of minority students.

But what the demographics of that chart really mean is that the only thing we can say with certainty about a "regular" American school is that it has students in it. Never in American history have individual schools looked more different from each other.

This presents a huge two-part challenge. On the one hand, local schools need to have the flexibility and freedom to fit their schools to their local culture and population. More than ever, one size really does not fit all. My current high school has little or no need for any programs that deal with English Language Learners-- the only student I had in decades who was not a native English speaker was a student who was raised Amish. My first high school had a large population of Hispanic students who were the first generation to speak English; we needed programs to help them. Today we can multiply those differences by a factor of thousands. Our individual schools are dealing with different cultures, different races, different language issues, different economic issues, different, different, different.

That chart is the total for the US, but individual schools are wildly varied slices of that. It has never been less possible to come up with school programming or design that can be unpacked in every school house in America.

At the same time, flexibility cannot be allowed to mean short-changed. A huge appeal of Common Core in some communities has been the promise that, finally, they will not just get a cheap knock-off imitation of the Real Education that the rich kids are getting uptown. CCSS can't deliver on the promise, and opens the door to even more damaging things, but the promise-- the promise really resonates for a lot of folks. 

The more different our schools become, the more those differences have to be reflected in positive ways. It's not enough to say, "We'll take the education we give the rich kids and just take out the parts that don't fit these Other Kids." If education is clothing, each kid needs an outfit that fits and looks good and the she can feel proud of and is of the same fine quality as everybody else's outfit, and that means we can't shop for everyone off the rack.

Diversity and Empathy

The growth of the minority school population means that we need a more diverse teaching force. Students need to be able to see teachers in front of them that they can imagine growing up to be. Given the diversity within a single classroom, this is a tough challenge to meet. Given the higher-than-average attrition rate for minority teachers, it's a challenge that needs an aggressive and pointed attack. The traditional hiring approach used by most schools for most staffing issues (Wait and Hope We Get Lucky) isn't going to work. It's especially sad that the organization to address this issue loudly is Frickin' Teach for America-- and we  know they aren't going to solve it.

But there's another piece of this dynamic. Students can better connect with teachers they feel they have something in common with, people who are like them in some way. Unfortunately, that door seems to swing another way. Our school leaders, legislators, important high poobahs-- they often seem to relate best to schools that have students who are like their own kids.

I don't know how we overcome the empathy gap. I am always frustrated with shows like Undercover Boss or news stories about Board Member McClueless expressing outrage after touring Underfunded Shambles Elemntary School and wonder, "How can you not have had a clue? Why did you need to see this with your own eyes to get it?"

If there were ever an argument for teaching more and more literature, it's in this empathy gap. A country like ours cannot survive if the only people we can talk to, listen to, hear, understand, care about, look out for, take care of are the people who are just like us.

The big takeaway from that chart is that we can no longer approach our nation's schools by aiming at some imaginary white middle class kid (probably a boy) and figuring if we aim at him, tweak things a little here and there for other kids, we'll basically hit everybody.

None of these trends, needs or challenges are new-- we should have been working on them all along. The only thing special about crossing the majority minority line is it gives us a hook on which to hang a conversation that has been ongoing, but which many more people ought to be joining.


  1. There are, indeed, challenges with how to deal with these issues. For instance, in my town, we are still under a 50-year-old desegregation order. One of the reasons we have not gone through the process of getting out from under it before now is because of the problem of teacher assignments. Whites tend to cluster in one part of town, blacks tend to cluster in another. The schools are therefore identifiable by race, and the teachers tend to reflect the race of the students.

    The system has tried to combat this. As new teachers are hired, the longtime practice has been to assign white teachers to the majority-black schools and black teachers to the majority-white schools. But funny thing: As soon as these teachers get tenure, the black teachers tend to request transfers to majority black schools, and the white teachers request transfers the other direction. Why? Several reasons, probably, but mainly it's a matter of wanting to teach closer to where they live and where they feel most comfortable. I know that many black teachers also feel a calling to help "their people." For the white teachers, there was also a motive to go where discipline can be more easily maintained (I had one friend tell me that when she taught at a majority-black elementary school in town, it was fairly routine to have kids talk back to her with some version of, "My mama told me I don't have to do nothin' no white woman tells me to do.").

    Now the school system is working to get out from under the deseg order, and the DoJ is demanding massive teacher reassignments so that the percentage of minority teachers is about the same in all schools. Yet this kind of "for appearance sake" desegregation goes directly against what you are discussing in terms of role models, etc. Frankly, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance on this issue on the left side of the ideological spectrum.

    That mental conflict shows up a lot in your writing, such as in this post where you dismissively referred to the belief that Those People were always fighting and solving their problems with knives. Are you really saying that wasn't true? The fact is that this is very often the way it is in working-class enclaves, no matter the race of the people involved. Why pretend otherwise just because it offends your sensibilities?

    It reminds me of the kind of stuff you hear anytime the problems of urban schools come up. If you mention drugs, gangs, violence, etc. as reasons for the bad outcomes, there is bound to be someone who gets really irate: "Oh, so you just assume that every inner city kid is a gang member, huh? Suburban kids use drugs, too, you know!" Either you are called a racist or it is strongly implied. But continue the conversation a bit, and the same person is likely to at some point say, "Oh, so you're just fine with brown kids staying in their violent, gang- and drug-infested schools just so long as YOUR kids are safe!"

    So yeah... like you said, these are very complicated issues.

  2. I'm dismissive of large generalizations about groups of people because they tend to draw a line between what's normal and what's an aberration for a group. I can tell you that in my town, when similar crimes were committed by different classes of people, one instance would be viewed as a momentary departure from the norm and not "proof" of anything, but another instance would be viewed as normal for Those People and further proof of What They're All Like.

    But yes-- it is all complex, not in small part because as a culture we often have trouble deciding whether we want to deal with a problem or just look like we're dealing with a problem.

    1. "One instance would be viewed as a momentary departure from the norm and not 'proof' of anything, but another instance would be viewed as normal for Those People and further proof of What They're All Like."

      "What They're All Like" would certainly be a bit extreme, but I believe the statistics would show that such instances were more common in that part of town than in the better sections. That's the way it typically goes, and I don't see much sense in pretending otherwise. Such was certainly the case where my mother grew up on the roughest side of a mill town, and her alcoholic father and uncles were often of whatever was going down.

    2. **often in the middle of what was going down.