Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mario Koran gets to the heart of the punitive culture at poor schools

Voice of San Diego's Mario Koran wrote yesterday in Oops: San Diego Unified Might Have Just Unwittingly Validated ‘Vergara’ that blacks and Latinos at poor schools in San Diego are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

This jibes with my experience. I remember how the teacher clique leaders at Castle Park Elementary used to go nuts because Superintendent Libby Gil wouldn't let them suspend students. I, on the other hand, thought that this was the best policy Libia Gil ever instituted. It may have been the only good policy that Gil ever instituted.

One day our special education teacher ran into the lounge, speechless with fury at the principal. The teacher leaned against a wall, fuming, as her loyal brigade of teacher followers fluttered around her asking questions.

It turned out that one of her students had run away from school. Apparently, he just couldn't bear it any more.

She was mad at the kid for leaving, but she was even madder that the principal was going to let him come back.

Ironic, right? She didn't want the kid in her class, but she didn't want him to leave--at least, not voluntarily. She was basically saying, "He can't quit! He has to be fired!"

But here's my larger point: it's not necessarily the least experienced teachers at poor schools who are most responsible for the suspensions and expulsions. There seems to be a culture among many veteran teachers that holds that teachers don't have to do their jobs for students who do not meet all their requirements.

In general, kids are given more chances to measure up if the teacher holds them in high regard. They are allowed more mistakes.

Kids who are disliked by a teacher are behind the figurative eight ball. There's very little chance that they will be able to become one of the fair-haired children, no matter how hard they try.

I taught a bilingual class at Castle Park Elementary, and year after year, my class was assigned to sit in the very back of the auditorium during assemblies. I asked the principal if we could rotate positions. It was starting to feel strange having the brown kids always in the last row. I told the principal that my kids had a greater need to be closer to the front because it was already hard for them to understand English, and it was even harder when they couldn't hear well. But the principal refused to make any changes in our assignment.

I campaigned long and hard to have my students mix with all-English classes for some small part of the day. Finally the other third-grade teachers allowed me to send a few kids to each of their classes for sharing time each morning. "But I don't want them to share, they should just listen," said Teacher A. It's possible that this did them more harm than good. I pointed out, during a grade-level meeting with the principal, that the Civil Rights Act forbids segregation and discrimination. Teacher A laughed out loud. Teacher B bellowed. And the principal let them get away with it. And when Rae Correira came from the district to try to solve the problem, Libby' Gil's right-hand man Richard Werlin transferred Rae to another position and the investigation was dropped. It's ironic that Libia Gil is now in charge of the federal Department of Education's bilingual department.

I think it would be worthwhile for districts to find out which teachers are initiating the suspension process most often, and then to see if those teachers share certain traits, such as being inexperienced.

I suspect that the culture of the school might also have something to do with it.

I know that at some schools teachers spend a lot of time talking about how awful their students are. Other teachers stay away from the lounge so they don’t have to listen to all the complaining by their colleagues about administrators who don’t suspend kids when the teachers demand it.

I think inexperienced teachers might behave very differently depending on the influence of the veteran teachers in their schools. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out that poor schools not only have the least experienced teachers, but they also have the crankiest veteran teachers? Maybe there’s a perfect storm at poor schools.

I hope you’ll follow up on this, Mario.

The Vergara decision is just a scratch on the surface of what is wrong in poor schools.

But maybe it will help raise the quality of education in poor schools.


Kathy S

"Vergara" or "We can call it structural inequity or we can call it institutional racism."

Fifty years after federal troops escorted nine black students through the doors of an all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark., in a landmark school integration struggle, America's public schools remain as unequal as they have ever been when measured in terms of disciplinary sanctions such as suspensions and expulsions, according to little-noticed data collected by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2004-2005 school year.

Academic researchers have been quietly collecting evidence of such race-based disciplinary disparities for more than 25 years. Yet the phenomenon remains largely obscured from public view by the popular emphasis on "zero tolerance" crackdowns, which are supposed to deliver equally harsh punishments based on a student's infraction, not skin color.

........Race , Class and Gender......

Socioeconomic factors are certainly at play, researchers believe.

"Studies of school suspension have consistently documented disproportionality by socioeconomic status. Students who receive free school lunch are at increased risk for school suspension," according to "The Color of Discipline," a 2000 study by Skiba and other researchers in Indiana and Nebraska. Another study concluded that "students whose fathers did not have a full-time job were significantly more likely to be suspended than students whose fathers were employed full time."

But those studies and others have repeatedly found that racial factors are even more important.

"Poor home environment does carry over into the school environment," said Skiba, who is widely regarded as the nation's foremost authority on school discipline and race. ......."But middle-class and upper-class black students are also being disciplined more often than their white peers. Skin color in itself is a part of this function."....

Maura Larkins

Excellent point, Kathy S. Here's a thought that is chilling, but I have a hunch that it might be true: maybe the cranky veteran teachers who habitually suspend kids of color in poor schools are actually LESS racist than the veteran teachers who have skedaddled to middle and upper class schools. In other words, maybe the horrible situation that we have now, a system that consigns thousand of kids every year to lifelong economic failure, is actually not the worst possible situation. Maybe those cranky teachers just need a little support and guidance to help them cope with difficult students.

I really hope that Mario will keep an eye on how schools handle this issue in the future.

@Maura Larkins  I don't think structural inequity or institutional racism is a "cranky veteran teacher" thing....

Of course, you're right.  At heart, structural inequity goes much deeper than crankiness. 

Where exactly does it come from?  It comes from the human instinct to advance ourselves by putting our neighbors at a disadvantage.  And it is maintained by the human instinct to resist change.  Once a group of people gets themselves into a privileged position, they resist giving up that position.  At that point, it isn't necessarily racism that protects the system.  It's the fear of change.

Some very nice people work hard to maintain structural inequity.  That's the beauty of the system, from the point of view of those who think they benefit from it.The people who enforce it don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong.

Of course, I question whether people are really acting in their own best interest when they grab an obscenely large slice of the pie while their neighbors get crumbs.  Everyone would be safer if our society didn’t generate legions of citizens who have nothing to lose.

My point is this: very few teachers in the classroom actually intend to dispense structural injustice.
The system has left these teachers with inadequate resources to deal with children who have been set up to fail by poverty and past and present inequality.

It’s not accidental that these teachers have inadequate resources.Society intends this to be the case. If we wanted good schools for all kids, we would have them.

So what I’m saying is that at the level of the classroom, the institutional racism is applied to individual children by teachers who are socialized into a culture of crankiness.

They don’t sit around the teacher lounge saying racist things.They rant about specific kids who did specific things.

The teachers have no idea that they are failing to give the kids the chances that they deserve.The teachers really believe they are doing the right thing.

Teachers tend to give white and Asian children more chances because they believe that those kids are more likely to succeed.  This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the teachers undermine the black and brown students by too-readily consigning them to failure.
Learning is all about making mistakes and then improving.  Good teaching means deftly guiding a child from ignorance to knowledge.  Instead, lazy teachers just excuse themselves from their obligations by deciding that there's no point in helping some children.
Of course, many white children are also undermined by the rigidity and laziness of their teachers.
It isn't just about race.
The teachers themselves are not receiving adequate training and supervision.
After all, who do you think is supervising them?  Teachers just like themselves who probably got promoted for reasons other than teaching excellence.


No comments: