MacArthur Fellow and education professor Lisa Delpit (author of the seminal book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom) takes on the “pedagogy of poverty” in this exploration of why education is still failing poor students of color. She charges that in spite of the fact that America has a black president,
“…we are far from a color-blind society, that African Americans are still devalued, stigmatized, and made invisible.”
In particular, she points to “microaggressions,” the term coined by Harvard researcher Chester Pierce, which refers to:
“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
As Pierce observed, any one of these may not be of great consequence, but when added together over time create a deadly psychological assault.
Delpit provides numerous examples of children of color (including her own daughter) being discounted, discredited, and stereotyped in the classroom.
The author reminds us that research shows there is no achievement gap at birth. But as minority children endure year after year of this treatment, they begin to “disidentify” with school and education and may either protest by acting out, or withdraw by disengaging. As Delpit writes, “Disidentified students become aliens in the academic world.”
Part of the problem is that different socioeconomic classes and different ethnicities have quite different ways of expressing themselves and of learning. When white teachers encounter these differences in children of color, they very often infer the child is learning impaired or disruptive or incapable of learning, when this may not be the case at all. Most critically, the students and their innate capabilities (or lack thereof) are blamed for failures in achievement rather than a deficiency in the teachers.
Interestingly, Delpit reports that one unexpected and deleterious effect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision (desegregating the schools) was that a large number of black teachers and administrators lost their jobs and were replaced by whites (at the insistence of white parents). These new educators were not necessarily better qualified than those they replaced. But even many well-meaning and qualified white teachers went into these newly integrated classrooms with a view of themselves as the white “saviors” of the black children. There were two other bad results as well: one was that black students were less likely to see people “who looked like them” in positions of authority. Perhaps more importantly, these white teachers and principals had little understanding of the cultures and styles of learning of their students.
As a result, behaviors that may be overlooked in whites are disparaged and punished in blacks. (A study released in March 2014 by the Department of Education found that while black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment they make up 48 percent of preschool children who receive more than one out-of-school suspension.) Is it a matter of black students just being not as well behaved? Data is only beginning to be analyzed, but anecdotal evidence at least, as reported in “The Washington Post,” suggests this is not the case.
What happens to those students who have become alienated from education? As one educator said, “the disenfranchised will either implode and destroy themselves or explode in our own front yards and most assured destroy us.” Do we really want to abandon all these children and create dangerous and expensive social problems rather than encouraging every child to reach his or her potential and contribute to society in a positive way? What must be done to change this pattern?
Delpit admits there are things educators cannot change, such as the level of poverty in a community, but asserts that blaming poverty is just an excuse for poor teaching. She identifies many examples of programs in blighted areas that experienced success when children were treated as if they could and would succeed. She proposes a formula for fostering excellence in urban classrooms that includes recognizing the inherent brilliance of poor, urban children and teaching them more content, not less; demanding critical thinking; providing children with emotional ego strength; and honoring and respecting the children’s home cultures, inter alia.
Unfortunately, recent education “reforms” with their emphasis on worksheets and test preparation make instituting these practices difficult. Even charter schools have started to weed their student populations in favor of less challenging students whose scores will generate more funding.
We must not give up, though, she urges. What is at stake is too important. It is only by continuing to push open dialogue on these issues (as she does with her books) that educators can honor their sacred trust to “fill our students’ hearts and minds with the potential for envisioning a future better than we ourselves can even imagine.” And that means filling all our students’ hearts and minds.
Discussion: Obviously the quality of American education is suffering in all socioeconomic groups. (See for example this article by Elizabeth Green, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”, an except from a new book on problems with teaching.) But middle and upper class white children, as members of the social majority, have opportunities and resources not available to poor children of color. Moreover, they have a more immediate acceptance and sense of comfort by how they are treated, which enables them to maintain a positive attitude and the expectation of success. This optimistic frame of mind is easier to maintain when one is not beaten down at every corner. Simply stated, those who think people of color are “oversensitive” have never gone through life as a person of color.
Evaluation: Anyone concerned about the quality of American education and the future of American society will find this book illuminating, as will anyone who contends that we in America have come to “the end of racism.”
Published by The New Press, 2012