An Open Letter to NC Lawmakers

An Open Letter to NC State Lawmakers and NC State Superintendent Mark Johnson:

I am a NC native, voter, and public school teacher. I am addressing you all today in regards to several key education policy issues contained with the Senate and House budget drafts that you are currently negotiating to a compromise final budget.

Arts Graduation Requirement

The House version of the budget includes a provision for an arts graduation requirement. I have 17 years experience as a visual arts teacher in NC including a number of years as a department chair for a large high school visual and performing arts department. An arts graduation requirement, especially without additional funding, could have negative unintended consequences. To ensure a quality arts education experience, a teacher is only part of the equation. Visual and performing arts courses require facilities and supplies well beyond the typical classroom supply costs. Running water, instrument storage, piano tuning, set pieces, sheet music…each specialty has major facility requirements, expensive required supplies, and often large start up costs.

Even more concerning is the pressure that a graduation requirement would put on existing arts programs. Many students thrive in the arts and take multiple arts courses throughout their high school careers. Outstanding arts programs get that way because of extended student study and leadership of experienced students. The pressure of a graduation requirement could mean that many arts teachers will be forced to offer more introductory level courses or seats at the expense of advanced courses and students. Lets do the math together. Lets say a high school has 1500 students and 4 arts teachers (band, chorus, art, and theater). On a 4×4 schedule those 4 teachers could offer 24 sections of courses a year. At an average of 30 students each, that is 720 students (less than half the student body) who could get an arts credit each year. In this scenario, the number of students who can take multiple arts classes is greatly reduced. As the provision was written, the credit could be earned in 6-12 grades, in theory relieving some of the burden on high schools. However, there is nothing to mandate that the middle school offer any arts courses nor are there established standards to ensure that the middle school course is the equivalent rigor of a high school course.

Frankly, I and other arts teachers are just puzzled by all this. There is no “whereas” section to the bill to enlighten us on the intent or objective of this legislation. I find no minutes or video of any discussion or debate of this issue or any name attached as a sponsor of the provision. Is the intent to show your support for arts education in our great state? That would indeed be most remarkable, considering in my 17-year career as an arts educator I don’t remember any such expression of support for the General Assembly. It is also a very mixed message as the impact of smaller class size mandates on arts teachers at the elementary level still goes unresolved. Is the intent to move arts instruction from the elementary to the secondary level? If so, can you please point to the research that supports that students benefit more from arts learning in higher grades? Who was consulted in the development of this policy? The NC Association of Art Educators? The NC Music Educators Association? The NC School Boards Association? The NC Board of Education? A handful of superintendents or principals? Anyone?

If we the people of NC are to be governed in good faith, then these are the conversations that need to happen. If the goal is ensuring a quality arts experience for all of North Carolina’s students, then approach the people who have expertise on the topic to understand what smart policy should look like. The same can be said of elementary class size issue. Instead of engaging in what frankly looks like an ego fueled game of brinksmanship and accusing districts of bad faith, accept the fact that school funding is insanely complex. Educators all across this state leave our egos at the door every day in order to focus on the needs of our students, perhaps our lawmakers and district leaders can as well.


This fact is simple and obvious and I know you have heard from numerous constituents who agree: there is too much standardized testing in NC. The call is coming from all over the political spectrum from both parents and teachers. I seem to recall that our recently elected State Superintendent, Mark Johnson ran on a platform of reducing standardized testing. Amazingly, there is an incredibly simple and easy way to accomplish that goal. Get rid of the NC Final Exams (NCFE) and Analysis of Student Work (ASW).

These assessments were developed in response to the Race to the Top federal funding program that no longer exists. They were developed to generate data for teachers related to standard six of the teacher evaluation instrument, a standard that no longer exists. They were solely designed to evaluate teachers, as they are optional for teachers who already have data based on an EOG test. They are also optional for charter schools. A blue ribbon task force recommended that they be eliminated. House Bill 90 to eliminate them was passed with only one opposing vote. When that bill went nowhere in the Senate, the House included an elimination of ASW funds in their budget. Eliminating these assessments would save the state money in developing and conducting them and would save districts money by reducing the staff needed to support testing. Why on earth do we still have these assessments? I can’t think of a single justifiable reason.

The new Federal Every Student Succeeds Act gives our state even more freedom in establishing accountability policies. In fact, it was passed in part specifically to answer parent and teacher complaints about over testing. There is a great opportunity to further reduce unnecessary testing and to make student assessments more authentic and meaningful. It is also an opportunity for NC to join dozens of other states in providing policy in regards to parents’ wishes to opt out of standardized testing. The Department of Public Instruction, under Mr. Johnson’s leadership, is in charge of this plan. Despite a final draft being due in September, the current draft is nowhere near complete with the questions of accountability left unaddressed:

NC Teaching Fellows

I am very pleased to see the General Assembly moving towards reestablishing a program similar to the NC Teaching Fellows program. The details of this program, however, matter greatly. The original Teaching Fellow program (that I was luck to be a part of) was not just about maintaining a flow of quality teachers; it was about building the foundation of our public school system. Students were chosen as high school students because the goal was to find young people who wanted to dedicate their whole careers to education. The goal was not only to find the best and brightest, but also to diversify our classrooms by drawing in teacher candidates from groups underrepresented in our teaching force. The Teaching Fellows program did not just prepare teachers, it prepared leaders. Fellows had more enriched experiences and more rigorous expectations than their peers in the same degree programs. Today a vast majority of former Teaching Fellows are still involved in education and many are teacher leaders, school and district administrators, and teacher educators. A program to replace Teaching Fellows should not be a quick fix to address teacher shortages in a few areas but should be a long-term investment in the people who will form the supporting architecture of our public schools. I challenge our lawmakers to design a program with this bolder vision instead of the more limited approach that has been proposed.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to these thought. I appreciate your service to the people of North Carolina.


The DeVos Flavor of School Choice


Many of the conversations about Betsy DeVos are based on the perception that she is an advocate for market driven school choice. I think it might be worthwhile to more closely examine the specific “flavor” of school choice that DeVos seems to advocate for. One clue is in her testimony in her Senate hearing. In it, she used the word “parent” or “parents” 22 times (based on the C-SPAN transcript). The talking point she repeated in various forms went like this: “…empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them…” Notice she doesn’t say empower parents and students or empower families. Notice she doesn’t say choose the best school, or the highest performing school, but the “right school.”

Her comments must be considered within context of what is known of DeVos’ conservative Christian background and beliefs. In that context, it would appear that her flavor of school choice is greatly aligned with the conservative Christian “parent’s rights” movement. Here is a manifesto of sorts on the topic from the Family Research Council, one of the many conservative Christian groups that the DeVos family has supported financially.

In a nutshell, this view is that parents are the proper authority for guiding the education of their children. There is great concern that “control over how children learn has moved away from parents to other adults: administrators in big school districts, state and federal education bureaucrats, legislators, judges, professors in teacher colleges, teacher’s union officials, and members of other interest groups.”

This classic rhetorical trick to dehumanize and blobify the “enemy.” No, the adults that have the greatest impact over how students learn are the teachers, principals, and other educators at the individual school the child attends—dedicated professionals who make sacrifices both large and small in the name of other people’s children. It seems that discussion of parent’s rights falls curiously quiet on the specifics of exactly how religious and other private schools facilitate more parental engagement in decision making.

The Family Research Council paper is simply a more polished version of internet comment sections that decry all teachers as Godless, communist, liberal indoctrinators. The irony is that one, we know a large percentage of US teachers were actually Trump voters that no one can possibly define as “liberal” and two, teachers across the country wistfully lament for greater involvement from parents in the education of the children they teach.

Politics and religion aside, on a strictly human level, anyone who has ever worked with children, observed friends and family as they raise children, or raised children themselves, knows that in fact parents can at times be the worst judges of what is best for a child. Frankly, many of us know this firsthand simply because we were raised by parents ourselves. The decision-making of parents can be clouded in so many ways.

One of the reasons why “market based” school choice is not a path to school improvement is that an overwhelmingly large body of peer reviewed, scholarly research shows that parents do not make school decisions based on measures of academic quality (just a few examples from just 10 minutes of ERIC searching: here, here, here, here, and here). Study after study shows us that parents consider many other factors as far more important than academic quality. Specifically, considerations of race and the demographic composition of the student body have consistently been shown to play an outsized role.

Of course our society has long upheld the idea that parents have rather broad authority in raising their own children. Parents have a prerogative to pass on the cultural and religious beliefs they value. Children are still humans, however, and have many of the same human, civil, and constitutional rights as adults. The courts have not always provided clear guidance as to where one set of rights ends and the other begins. That often does leave teachers and schools to negotiate those spaces, something that none of the parties involved relishes.

Of course, this flavor of school choice is not really about choice but about practicality. Every family in the country can choose to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. The Home School Legal Defense Association only describes five states as having “high” regulation for home schooling and 29 with little or no regulation. Supreme Court precedent and every single state affirms the right of parents to send their child to a private school. About half the states were even given a C+ or better for having what private school advocates call “reasonable regulations” .

So this issue is not choice, but affordability and practicality. Of course, choice advocates like to imagine that tax dollars should be able to “follow” their children. This makes as much sense as only paying your tax dollars to those institutions you personally use. Can I get a voucher on all the tax money that went to National Parks and public museums to support my choice to vacation at Disney World instead? (Of course, my facetious example seems a lot less ridiculous in the current reality of a Trump presidency).

The flavor of school choice that DeVos would likely support is not one solely of capitalism, markets, or school reform, and certainly not based on concerns of equity. Much like Trump and the rest of his entourage, DeVos’ words are dog-whistled support for those that view teachers and public schools as an existential threat and unredeemable enemy and hope to undermine them with the help of whatever allies they can find. For public school advocates, the stakes are indeed high, and the battle could be long.

Teachers, Fairness, and Ideological Purism


Blogging and tweeting about education policy has led me to interact with a lot of people across a very broad ideological spectrum. I have found that across the ideological spectrum, the gulf between teachers and non-teachers in the world of education policy is especially wide. Teachers are eternally frustrated that they are left out of meaningful policy discussions. Policy folks are frustrated that often when they seek input they only get apathy, anger, and negativity in return…and still get accused of not listening even when they are under the impression that they tried to.

We simply don’t speak the same language.

The term compassion fatigue is often used in conversations about teachers (and nurses and other caregivers). Teachers also suffer from BS fatigue and plan old physical fatigue too. A nearby city explodes in anger over racial injustice. More of my most talented colleagues resign. A talented and hardworking student is deported back to the country where the people who committed the political assignation of her father have threatened her own life. A project which I have been working on for three years, with enormous potential to benefit students, is denied approval at the last minute. All of those events occurred in same day recently and it is still wasn’t the most frustrating or heartbreaking day I have had as teacher. As teachers tend to gaping wounds like these, we are subjected to being called selfish and self-interested and incompetent. We are called perpetuators of racism by those that choose to be blind to the fact that they are too.

And we scream, cry, and entertain our spouses with nonsensical monologues of rage. Then we quietly pack the left over anger and frustration up into neat little packages. We will do something to process that later, perhaps. As a teacher, when we say we feel attacked, the response is one of gas lighting. “Oh no, of course we love and support teachers…no one is bashing you!” “Of course we don’t mean all teachers, just those bad ones.” (Because it is good practice to destroy the morale of the 95% or more of teachers that we know are excellent to weed out those terrible 5%).

The gulf between teachers and non-teachers is not so much about ideology, but about ideological purism. Our schools and classrooms and school are ground zero for “culture wars” as we must negotiate religion, classism, racism, sex education, LGBT issues, and peanut allergies (a far more political topic than many realize) to name a few things. Teachers function daily in a world of maddening contradictions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities. The work of teachers is simultaneously liberatory and oppressive. We work in mostly forced isolation yet are expected to be expert collaborators. We are expected to be nurturing yet are our emotion is dismissed as naïve. We are expected to the authoritative in our classrooms but acquiesce to any and all authority “above us.” We struggle daily with issues of equality and equity for both students and ourselves. In the public discourse, we are both championed for our self-sacrifice and accused of destructive self-interest. We are criticized for both being not intellectual enough (that bottom third myth is still out there) and for being too intellectual (all that time wasted in teacher education on theory).

All of this seems frustrating for those in the policy and reform worlds who apparently work with the currency of absolutes and black and whites. The discussion of teachers’ unions is an excellent example. The hyperbolic public discourse on teacher’s unions conveniently forgets that in five states, teachers are barred from collective bargaining by law. In almost half of the states, teachers are prohibited from striking. Add in right-to-work laws and it all adds up a solid one-third of states where teachers’ unions have very little to zero power. A large number of teachers are being entirely left out of the conversation when the conversation is only about unions. Teachers unions clearly are neither infallible saviors nor the root of everything wrong in public schools. Teaching is a world of moderation and balance. To everything there is a season. Every tool has potential to help students if used correctly. That also does sit well with some activists on the other end of the spectrum who want an end to testing and who brand technology and schools as unholy combination with no possible positive outcome.

Ironically, while teachers have no room for ideological purism in many aspects of our work, it is our lifeblood in others. In the world where teachers spend a majority of their time, fairness is of the utmost importance. There are no double standards. Morality and ethics are not abstract concepts to be thought of broadly, generally, or historically; they are daily, immediate concerns. Just a short time in a classroom will teach anyone the power of our innate human sense of fairness unclouded by adult egos. As a teacher, when you violate that sense of fairness, you are lucky to live to tell about it.

Needless to say, navigating the necessarily political, ego filled, and decidedly unfair world around teachers can be a challenge for us. Of course, it is usually the teacher who comes off looking poorly in the exchange. Our idealism is dismissed as impractical, forgetting that in the environment we work in most of the time, idealism is not only practical but also necessary. Fair is fair and right is right. I find that those that are the most scared of rooms full of children are those that cannot come to terms with that simple fact.

The other aspect of ideological purism that teacher cling to is the focus on the needs of students. It is simply inconceivable to me as a teacher that the needs of teachers and needs of students can be seen in opposition to teach other. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Despite our best efforts, teachers that are beaten down cannot inspire students. Teachers who don’t feel valued are hard pressed to ensure students feel valued. Teachers who cannot model integrity cannot develop integrity in students. It puzzles me to no end that teachers, who sacrifice their health, family time, and more profitable careers for the sake of students, are attacked as selfish by those that have never sacrificed a thing in the name of other people’s children.

It puzzled Ella Flagg Young when she wrote her entire dissertation about it–in 1901. There is a summary of her biography and her dissertation here or the original work is rather short and readable and worth the time. In well over a hundred years of public schooling in this country, we have never succeeded in true teacher empowerment on any meaningful scale. Those who claim that education reform is about taking power and control away from the “status quo” educational leadership are missing an important history lesson—teachers have never been a part of that leadership. We have never really had a seat at the table much less control of it, regardless of the presence or absence of unions. Real education reform (i.e. improvement, not privatization) would be in service to just that—finally empowering teachers. Only when teachers are truly empowered can form of accountability for teachers be fair or meaningful. Current reform efforts are unfortunately about the opposite: dumbing down, scripting, automating, and controlling teachers behind deeper and deeper levels of bureaucracy.

Are teachers the problem or the solution? Do we contribute to inequity in our education system or help fight it? In many ways, we really can’t answer that question because teachers have never really been empowered enough to know what our impact is (or could be). With apologies to the ideological purists out there, the answer for now is E. all of the above are correct. It is part of the reality that teachers and students negotiate everyday.






Is Integration Too Much Bother?

Guest post over at Curmudgucation: (Thanks Peter!)

The debate over charter schools has slowly spread into wider and wider circles of public discourse. In response to data supported concerns that charter schools are contributing to the resegregation of our schools, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have expressed concerns. Some charter school advocates have taking an interesting stance in response. They propose that perhaps desegregating our schools is just too hard, too expensive, and too time consuming and simply shouldn’t be a goal or focus of education policy. A good example of this is a recent piece by Peter Cunningham. He leaves the reader with this question:

“So here’s the question: Should America spend hundreds of billions more to reduce poverty and should we risk more bitter battles to reduce segregation, or should we just double down on our efforts to improve schools? The liberal in me says we should do both. The pragmatist in me wonders if we can.”

The sheer absurdity of the question begs for a piece of satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal.” This perplexing stance on desegregation, which seems to be held by a number of influential people in the world of education reform, isn’t really all that perplexing—it is the policy corner they have backed themselves into. This is exactly where the rabbit hole of uncritical support for school choice, accountability, and faith in “market forces” leads.


Lets start by addressing two important logical fallacies in this line of thinking. If desegregation is too complex and difficult of a problem for public schools to address, then so is the similarly vexing problem of poverty. If schools have no business solving segregation, then they have no business solving poverty. However, those who advocate education reform often espouse that very idea—that education is the solution to poverty. So it is our job as educators to end poverty, but when it comes to segregation, we must throw our hands up in despair because there is nothing to be done. Or just focus on instruction as if poverty and segregation have no impact on student learning. Reformers chide those who cite the numerous significant obstacles that child poverty presents schools as just “making excuses.” In that case, then it would appear that education reformers are just “making excuses” in regards to the issue of segregation.

Many within the education reform movement also see traditional public schools as rife with systemic racism. Therefore, the only way to ensure positive outcomes for students of color is by “disrupting” the system, introducing competition, and providing charter schools outside of the system. However, when faced with the data showing that charter schools are resegregating our schools (specifically in the case of white parents using charter schools to avoid diverse school environments), suddenly the issue is not systemic but simply the choices of racist parents. If you believe that systemic racism exists in traditional systems and elected boards, then you must also accept that is exists in other systems, such as charter schools and their non-elected boards. If you believe that racism is only the result of the actions of individual bad actors, then the public school system cannot be at fault (unless of course you believe the whole staff was hired from a Klan rally). Systemic racism must be addressed in all systems, including charter schools.

The Narrative

Education reform policies must shoulder some blame for the current state of resegregated schools, not just for blindly pushing a charter school agenda, but also for the proliferation of a narrative of failing schools. The goal of “reforming” public schools necessitated a narrative proving that they are in need of reform. Instead of a narrative of needed soul-searching, reorganization, renewed focus, community engagement, funding structures, teacher training, cultural responsiveness, addressing oppressive practices, or any of the other dozen legitimate issues of school and district improvement, it was quicker and easier to label public schools as failing.

Of course most education reform advocates profess motives as pure as the freshly driven snow. Even when true, this narrative aligned itself with the narrative of failing public schools pushed by those whose agenda is privatization of our public resources and profiteering. This narrative also conveniently fit the within the coded language of white parents who (consciously or not) found undesirable the prospect of sending students to truly diverse schools, or schools where white students are a minority. Instead of repudiating the use of such a narrative in dog whistle fashion, most in the education reform movement has remained silent. It is a disturbingly Trumpian move (you know, he can’t help if Neo-Nazis and the KKK choose to endorse him, right?). Unfair and unreasonable moving targets of accountability further fueled the narrative of failing schools; accountability mandates that were also provided without the necessary resources and support needed to meet them.

In my experience, the root of the struggle of public schools today is the damage brought by this narrative; seeds that were sowed far and wide in the fertile fields of white privilege. The public has lost faith in even the potentials of our public schools. Not because they should, not because it is justified, but because education reformers told them to. The reform movement relied so heavily on the narrative of failing schools the damaged just snowballed. Now traditional public schools simply can’t do anything right in face of evidence to the contrary. In yet another irony, education reformers have done exactly what the accuse teachers of doing but setting low expectations for disadvantaged students. Public schools are just like a disadvantaged student. We have been branded a failure; branded hopeless. Since we cannot reach the unreasonable expectations some have set for us, we are now given only the lowest expectations. We are the victims of the low expectations set by those who control the narrative.

The result is that many in our communities are no longer deeply invested in the success of public schools because they have been lead to believe we are beyond repair. All the efforts to reform public schools based on market models has change the perception of public schools from a collaborative effort to make our society a better place but factories of individual student achievement. Students and families are now customers, not collaborators. The result is a selfish competitiveness that has destroyed the soul of public education. To add insult to injury, those of us who dare speak out on behalf of the power and promise of our public schools are branded “defenders of the status quo,” a fact that could not be farther from the truth.

Do not underestimate the power of this narrative. Traditional public schools have successfully been branded uncool, undesirable along with other “public” entities. Part of the larger push for privatization is the careful crafting of a dog whistle narrative of public things as inferior, as only used by the poor and undesirable (to most whites unconsciously synonymous with black and brown people). To call the popularity of charters as being driven by “market forces” is hardly fair when the playing field has been rigged by a marketing machine that traditional districts cannot match. Public policy is often about encouraging people to make better choices. We have succeeded in changing public narratives on things like healthy life styles. Now fruits and vegetables are cool and smoking is not (I sure wish that was true during my formative years). If a public narrative can move McDonalds to a healthier menu, anything is possible. Think of where we could be today if the education reform narrative had not been, “our schools are failing” but “our schools need help, lets invest our time, energy, and money on improving them.” Truly integrated, diverse public schools are the best thing for the health of our democracy—that is the narrative that we must craft.

Integration the Right Way

When discussing the issue of school segregation, it is important to remember that most parts of the country never achieved integration in the first place. Many strategies were used to ensure the creation of white public school enclaves while skirting segregationist practices that would draw the attention of the courts. Some communities made halfhearted attempts at integration that failed. In many parts of the South, however, steely determination from a variety of parties, a multitude of strategies, and federal action equaled success. In the years following the Brown decision, my home of North Carolina was the most integrated state level educational system in the country. Those gains have been slowly walked back through the actions of conservative judicial appointments and policy decisions of state and local lawmakers, including the impact of voucher programs and lax charter policy. It is not accurate to say the school integration efforts have failed; powerful individuals and small groups have intentionally and systemically worked to undermine them, often against the collective will of communities. When desegregation was successful, it involved the control and crafting of a narrative that supported it as well as both small and large policy steps. Good public policy simply makes positive choices slightly easier than negative ones. There is nothing impossible about it.

Past integration efforts also illustrate some of the many possible pitfalls. Historically, integration has been done on white terms. Integration cannot come with the assumption of the inferiority of non-white educational environments.

After the fall of Jim Crow, it was the black schools that were shuttered and the black teachers and principals that were laid off. The assumption of superiority of white schools my have been true in the case of facilities and resources, but not necessarily in terms of instruction. Excellence can and does exist in all black or all brown spaces. Black and brown spaces also provide affirmation to students of their dignity and culture.

Ironically, it is often these very schools that have been labeled as “failures” by school accountability measures and shuttered. In the name of “improved” education, we often send students of color into spaces that are not culturally responsive and not affirming to their dignity and culture. In that case, it is easy to see while communities of color embrace a responsive charter school, even with uncertified teachers and fewer resources. We should not accept that this is the best we can do for underserved communities of color. They deserve the same culturally responsive, community controlled, fully funded, integrated public schools that more privileged communities receive.

Integration must be paired with cultural responsiveness.

We must also be mindful of who benefits from school integration. Those outside of the dominant culture (white, middle-class) often learn to negotiate diverse environments out of necessity. White people, however, can easily access enclaves of whiteness where little interaction with diverse individuals is required. The idea is that integrated environments are good for students because it gives them a competitive edge in the diverse workplaces. However, when that benefit is bestowed inequitably on white students or when the assumption is that student of color must adapt and conform to superior, white middle-class norms, then there is a problem.

Integration cannot be paired with the assumed superiority of whiteness.

The Urgent and the Important

The world of education leadership has long held dear a concept that is credited to President Eisenhower—we must never let the urgent get in the way of the important. It is an easy trap to fall into. A constant state of crisis in our public schools keeps us so busy that the things that are of the most importance go untended. While appreciating and addressing the urgency of improving educational outcomes for all students, we cannot loose sight what is truly of lasting importance in our public schools. The solutions proposed by the education reform movement have always been a Band-Aid at best. The misguided “pragmatism” that has some questioning the value of a focus on integration does exactly that—it sacrifices the important in the name of the urgent to the detriment of both current and future students.

Choice and Segregation

This blog is also posted in a shorter version with the Education Post.

Charter school advocates have recently expressed frustration in the final charter language in the Democratic party platform as well as a new NAACP resolution concerning charter schools and a platform produced from Black Lives Matters activists that raise concerns about charters “destabilizing” and “resegregating” traditional public schools. I can provide a well-documented example the legitimacy of these concerns in the district I have worked in for 16 years, Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC.

Though Faulkner’s words are misquoted, his sentiment is very true: in the South, the past isn’t history, in fact, it isn’t even the past yet. Like all Southern cities, Durham has its own unique and complex history of segregation and desegregation If you really want to understand the history of Durham, and by extension, of many of the challenges of race relations throughout the South, please watch this excellent documentary.

Durham’s two public school districts were fully desegregated by court order in 1970. White flight from the city to county schools was the result. The two districts coexisted for decades, the city district overwhelming black (including school board, administrators, and teachers as well as students) and the county district overwhelmingly white—though each individual district was technically “integrated.” Despite regular joint school board meetings and reoccurring productive conversations about merger starting in the 1970s, the two districts did not formally merge until 1992.

Through a variety of measures — magnet programs, equitable funding, new school construction and redistricting, urban planning and housing programs — the community successfully diversified most of its schools at that time. However, care was taken to honor and preserve the community’s beloved historically black high school, Hillside. Hillside is the oldest and one of only five historically black high schools that still survive in North Carolina (from 300 that existed prior to desegregation).

Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintain the delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system. Using testing data and diverse community input, the district developed an ambitious 10-year plan starting in 1997 to attack various achievement gaps. Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintained the complex and delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system that is simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural.

The rapid and unmanaged growth of charter schools in the county has now destroyed that delicate balance. The impact increased after 2011 when the state cap on charters was lifted and a number of steps were taken by state lawmakers to loosen oversight of charters. In NC, the state authorizes charters with no input from the local districts. There are no guidelines to ensure that charter enrollment mirrors the diversity of the surrounding community. Charter schools are also not required to provide transportation or meals. Even the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has expressed concern about charter policy in the state.

As a result of these policies, charter schools in the state are more segregated than traditional public schools. Researchers at Duke University have pointed out that 20% of all charter schools in the state are 90% or more white. Durham, a district with less than 40,000 school-aged children, now has 13 charter schools with number 14 scheduled to open this fall and number 15 already approved for the future.

The net result of the growth in charters is that they have concentrated poorer children of color in the district schools. According to the 2010 census, 40% of Durham County’s population is white. As of last school year, only 18% of Durham Public School students were white.  Meanwhile, four Durham charter schools are 54%-67% white. Essentially, since the growth of charter schools beginning in the 2007-08 school year, approximately 1200 white students have disappeared from Durham Public Schools.

Both research and anecdotal evidence (here and here) demonstrate that white parents prefer schools where their child will be in the majority, often as a more important factor than school quality. Research by Helen Ladd at Duke University on white parents in NC found that a 20% black population was the threshold that white parents preferred.

Three of the four majority white charter schools are not part of a charter management chain. They are grassroots charters started by the local community. Some associated with some of those charters have expressed a seemingly honest desire for a more diverse student body but are unable or unwilling to address the underlying reasons why many families of color do not consider the school a viable option. It is notable the other nine charter schools in the county are a majority students of color.

Of course, the reasons behind all parents’ school choices are complex. I know this first hand as the magnet coordinator at my school where I work directly with parents involved in the school choice process. They look for convenience; they look for “fit;” they are often far more concerned about social aspects of the school than the quality of instruction.

At the same time, I routinely hear white parents make coded statements that expose unconscious racism and both black and white parents express unconscious classism. Parents lament that if only DPS schools were “safer” they would send them there instead. One can also hear concern over “fair treatment” from a black principal or their children being around “disruptive” students who “don’t take their academics seriously.”

Many white and middle class parents are looking for rich, progressive learning environments for their children, something they often wrongly assume can’t be found in traditional public schools serving urban youth. They assume those schools provide only rigid and narrow approaches to education with an excessive focus on testing. DPS already has a lot of choice built in the system. It has a liberal transfer policy and 40% of the schools are part of an award winning magnet program. Testing data shows that the four majority white charter schools do no better than most, and worse than a few, DPS schools. None of those four charter schools provides a specialized curriculum that is not already available within the district schools.

While each student who leaves the district for a charter school takes with them their average per-pupil spending, the district has been left with students who are more expensive to educate. In a district with a 30% child poverty rate, Durham Public Schools now has a 65% free and reduced lunch rate as well as higher concentrations of students with disabilities and English language learners. Students who return to the district after the 20th day of school do not bring any funds back with them.

In a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle, the exodus of white and middle class families may cause the district schools to look more like those very schools those families want to avoid. Concentrated poverty and disadvantaged students have impacted school test data and the district faces greater testing pressures.

The future holds even more uncertainty. The number of charter schools has destabilized the whole school system. Charters can and do close mid-year leaving the local district to suddenly accommodate those children, sometimes without the benefit of transcripts. A lot of time and money spent on careful and responsible planning for future growth and facility usage in the district can be thrown out the window. The district now faces uncertainty about student movement to and from charters and the number of charters may be approved in the future.

While area charters still claim long wait-lists, insiders express concerns of charter market over saturation with some new charters failing to meet enrollment goals and charters investing more time and money into recruitment efforts. Area charter teachers also quietly express concern about practices of grade inflation and lack of rigor as charter schools try to keep students and families satisfied.

Any readers who are still looking for another explanation must have more faith in white acknowledgement of privilege and racism than I do. What is happening in Durham raises a lot of questions and should give pause. The intersection of race and school choice is complex. Given the known benefits of school integration for all students, it is time to consider policy approaches that ensure that school choice leads to more integration rather than contributing to more racial and economic isolation in our public schools.

As white students quickly become a minority in America’s public schools, we now have a taste of what the white privilege fueled response may look like.

Durham shows us that decades of violent and intense desegregation battles can be quickly undone.








Class Privilege 101

Check out this post as a guest post over at Edushyster: 
I was really intrigued by the recent discussion about college and disadvantaged students. Research is showing us that those who come from poverty still earn less in their lifetime even with a college degree than those from more affluent backgrounds. And those are the students who actually finish.  Far too many low-income students rack up large amounts of debt, but fail to graduate. In the long run, they are worse off. These are profoundly important facts to inform our discussions around education policy. This matters to me because I am a public school teacher and education scholar. It matters even more to me because I once was a poor kid in college.

I was born and raised in Southern Appalachia in one of the many lingering pockets of extreme rural poverty in America. Not only was my family and most of my community impoverished, we were culturally and physically isolated. Violence and alcoholism were common fixtures. My mother was a product of the foster care system, my father struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability, and I had a special needs sibling. I graduated in the top 5% of my class with a 4.65 GPA despite working 35-40 hours per week, starting the week of my 16th birthday. I was a first generation college student. I am sure I would have been a dream come true for an Ivy League admissions officer in search of a scholarship recipient. I didn’t apply to any Ivy League schools, though. I attended the closest public university to me, 30 miles away. And I only did that instead of going to the local community college because I was offered a scholarship to become a teacher, something that I was passionate about.

I also tried to quit three separate times. By quit, I mean car-packed-up-and-driving-away-in-the-middle-of-the-semester quit. This would have been a disaster for me as the largest chunk of my full financial aid package was a scholarship loan that had to be paid back with my service as a teacher—or in cash with interest. Quitting college would have left me in significant debt. My advisor came and got me each of the three times and convinced me to come back, and talked me down at least one more time before I made it to the car. Why did I want to leave? Why was college so difficult for me? It wasn’t academics; I maintained a 4.0. The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

For example, the polite but formal, pleasant but distant *professional* approach that many of my professors took to student interaction seemed cold, impersonal, heartless, and utterly foreign to me. I had no model to work from. Where I came from, exceeding politeness and formality was a sign of disrespect and distrust. Those of us from a working-class culture have a level of comfort with expressions of emotions and even anger that can make middle class folks squirm. Even today, the idea of compartmentalizing *personal* and *professional* is remains utterly foreign to me. It’s probably clear by now that my early interactions with professors didn’t go smoothly. Like the time I called one of my professors to tell her I would be missing class due to a death in the family. She couldn’t comprehend how the sudden passing of my fiancé’s grandfather justified missing multiple days of classes. To her, that was irresponsible. I couldn’t comprehend how I could offend my future in-laws by not being with them during that time. To me, that was irresponsible.

We have very strange habit in this country of pretending that class differences (and the profound cultural difference that come with them) don’t exist. In education, we discuss concerns that poor students are being approached from a *deficit model.* Which is a really polite way to say that middle-class folks assume their culture and value systems are superior to that of working class people.

Here’s a handy description of the differences taken from the work of Barbara Jensen, a scholar who has extensively research the culture of class in America:



Of course, this is a neutral depiction. It is easy to see how value judgments can be made from each position. From my perspective as a young college student, middle-class culture was selfish, greedy, disloyal, materialistic, opportunistic and shallow. Frankly, I still think that way to some extent. Why should we value individualism more than loyalty and commitment to a community? I have never been competitive or understood the value of being goal-oriented. How, exactly, does creating a goal in any way help you accomplish it? What is the point other than to establish an artificial sense of accomplishment by achieving some arbitrarily defined thing?

There are so many ways that K-12 education and especially higher education force middle-class culture onto all students. An excellent example is the fact that most colleges force students to live in the dorm for at least the first year. Numerous obstacles such as lack of public transportation and policies that prohibit cars on campus can make it difficult for students to get home for visits. In addition to rules and obstacles, there is often active discouragement or stigma placed on commuting from home or even making frequent visits. One of my high school students lost her only living parent in the February of her senior year, just two weeks after her 18th birthday. I helped get her off to college, but despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

Despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

The goal of policies such as this seems to be the development of independence, adulthood, and adult identity separate from family. These goals, of course, are pretty much the archetype of middle-class values. On the other hand, poor kids generally have already learned a lot of adult skills and independence. Forcing poor students away from the grounding that family and community provide and also exposing them to peer pressure from students who have far less to lose from unwise choices can lead to disaster. Adding insult to injury, many people advocate exactly for such policies since they get disadvantaged college students away from *negative influences* and *poor role models.* There was a 60% freshman dropout rate at my college when I attended. In trying to address this problem, the university assumed the reason was that students were bored in a rural location (especially those from down state), which was exacerbated by the fact that so many students went home every weekend. They desperately tried to solve the *suitcase problem* instead of more closely examining the reasons why students went home.

So, if we really believe in college opportunities for all and we really want poor students to succeed in college, then it is long past time to unpack and deconstruct the culture and value systems that are being privileged on campus—and in many K-12 schools as well—and reconsider policies that belittle and dismiss working-class cultural values.



my grandparents, 1936

Well these have been an eventful few weeks. I have struggled to write in both time and ability to articulate. What meaningful thoughts could I possibly add to the current dialog? My shared grief over the graphic footage of yet more police shootings of black men as well as the tragedy in Dallas for me were aligned with my own private grief as well as the hectic start of a new school year (I work at a year round school).

In a ritual that I imagine is familiar to most families, we are in the process of sorting through the accumulated belongings of my grandparents. My grandfather passed last November at 98 and my 97-year-old grandmother is now in a nursing home. It is a bittersweet process full of sadness, joy, and existential questions, sometimes with unsettling answers (along with a large helping of dust and mold on the side).

As I sorted through my grandparent’s life experiences, I reflected on the wide gulf between our perspectives. Could I ever truly understand a worldview and mindset formed in a context that was so different from my own? Could they ever truly understand me? I saw the connection of this question to the content I would be teaching soon. As my AP Art History students study prehistoric art, how will I help them understand how different our modern worldviews are from prehistoric humans, while not underestimating the fundamental similarities that still shape us?

In the same way that we find it hard to build a bridge across these gaps, it is a struggle to understand the perspective of those of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Some understandings are just inscrutable by those on the outside. Some shoes simply cannot be walked in. As I pondered, theme of connection seemed to be thread tying together these disjointed experiences.

Humans seek connection with other humans. Those who don’t find it often turn to violence and rage (isn’t every mass shooter described as a “kind of a loner”?). Those who find connection and lose it are grief stricken. The abused continue to tolerate their abusers in avoid the loss of connection to them. If we often struggle to connect with people with whom we share DNA (and physical resemblance) simply because we are a few decades removed, what hope do we have as teachers walking into diverse classrooms? Yet, teachers and students often do create deep connections with each other and with their peers across the widest gulfs.

As Black Lives Matter movement has shaped and encouraged the greater discourse about systemic racism, the issue of white fragility comes to the surface. White fragility is certainly an accurate description of a real phenomenon. However, narratives of white fragility tend to focus on adults, not students; corporate settings, not schools; and ignores in how white fragility is manifest differently based on class differences. As the mostly white teaching force works in increasingly diverse schools, we face a daunting challenge—how do we help students understand and come to terms with their place and role within systems of power and oppression while also developing the agency and desire of all students to create a more socially just society?

Or to put it more simply, how do we help all students (and possibly ourselves) make sense of the truth and reality of inequity in our society and give them the tools to help create more equal society? It is complex challenge made more difficult by the dynamics of power within our districts, schools, and classrooms.

Part of white fragility manifests itself in the fear and sadness over lost connection. Admitting that there are gaps we cannot cross means throwing the whole notion of connection in question. That is scary on a deeply psychological level. For some, being vocally anti-racist or supportive of LGBTQ rights appears to risks existing connections while also appearing to deny the ability to forge new ones. Evolutionarily speaking, fairness and justice have an uphill battle against the human desire to belong. This is powerfully evident to those of use who work in school settings. It is root of all bullying behavior.

One of the most challenging ideas that Paulo Freire presented is that the oppressor is also hurt by the process of oppression: “the oppressor, is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others.”(Notice neither he nor I suggest that they are more hurt by it, nor that it is the job of the oppressed to comfort them, simply that systems of oppression are dehumanizing to all).

As educators, we must find a balance. No, we cannot simply ignore all “this stuff” and “focus on the curriculum”—that is the answer that perpetuates the inequity. Education is fundamentally political in nature, denying this fact is naive and misguided. No, there is no room in our schools for race neutral, kumbaya, “can’t we all just get along” nonsense. We cannot deny reality. At the same time, we also cannot we entertain hopelessness.

As Freire puts it: “in place of immobilist fatalism, I propose critical optimism…I recognize reality. I recognize the obstacles, but I refuse to resign to silence or to be reduced to a soft, ashamed, skeptical echo of the dominant discourse.” Yes, teachers are human and most fail to recognize and understand our privilege at times. We will make mistakes and missteps as we navigate the racial, social, and political crosscurrents of our diverse classrooms and schools. We should take those opportunities to listen and learn, but we should not choose to be silent simply because our efforts are imperfect.

As we reflect on the coming year (or for some of us, face our students now) Paulo Freire charges each of us with these responsibilities to our students:

  • “…to unveil opportunities for hope, regardless of the obstacles”
  • to accept the political and directive nature of education
  • to express respect for differences in ideas and positions
  • to respect the students, never manipulating them
  • to be tolerant, open, forthright, and critical, teaching is not simply the “transmission of knowledge concerning the object or concerning the topic”
  • to teach so that students can learn to learn “…the reason-for, the “why” of the object or the content.”
  • to challenge students with a regard to their certitudes so that they seek convincing arguments in defense of the why

Let’s all take his words to heart. Let us focus on the challenge of forging deep connections that do not deny the reality of our differences. We all have done it before, we can do it again.