Why Whites Should Be The Real Target Of School Reform

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Alec Perkins

Those of us who taught and now study educational policy hear a few key phrases over and over again: “narrowing the achievement gap,” “breaking the cycle of poverty,” “demography should not be destiny,” and many more in this tired tradition.

These issues are frequently talked about as the primary national problem ― the need to use education as a tool to raise more lower-income people into the middle class. It is almost always phrased as either an economic problem (to appeal to conservative audience) or as a moral failing of White society (to appeal to liberal audiences). Time and time again, the education of lower-income children of color is presented as the main reason for increased education funding, education reforms and policy experiments. This work usually takes place in major urban areas, where resources, universities and governments are already concentrated.

Critics of this focus talk about a “deficit mentality,” where higher-income Whites are fixated on “helping” lower-income non-Whites to accumulate the same “advantages” that they themselves hold. “Leveling the playing field” through policy alone can ignore the assets that children of color already have from their own families, which are rarely leveraged within the majority White education space.

These two groups tend to go back and forth about how to properly frame “the problem,” which is Whites (and even higher-performing East Asians) outpacing Blacks and Latinx in terms of achievement and other outcomes that are easier to measure. We fight too about what is appropriate to measure or not, and what counts as evidence in terms of education research, and whether we should make decisions based on evidence, morality or a combination of the two.

Are you bored yet? So am I. This is a conversation that will continue for as long as we are alive. The problem with these debates is that Whites, especially rich Whites, are never the focus of the policy. We are the actors and the arbiters but never the recipients. Unless, perhaps, there is a tax break involved.

What is too often missing in policy circles is the critical role that education must play in breaking the cycle of white supremacy. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the election of Donald Trump suggest that perhaps it is Whites, including the affluent, who should be the target of the next wave of education reform. I point to my own experience attending forcibly integrated public schools in Johnston County, North Carolina to illustrate just what this might look like and why I did not absorb the same beliefs as some (though certainly not all) of my extended family members.

First, I grew up in an area that was rural enough to allow everyone in town to attend the same school. There weren’t the sort of busing and logistical issues that Whites successfully scapegoated in Boston and other large cities. I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how you would actually go about de-segregating hyper-segregated cities in a way that is politically realistic.

But what I do know from my experience as the first in my family to attend fully integrated schools starting in kindergarten is that all Whites ― all of us ― need to be educated in integrated spaces that allow for the following:

1. Interracial dialogue facilitated by trained teachers, preferably teachers of color, who have frankly been shown to be more effective. White students and White teachers arrive to the first day of school with a host of prejudices inherited from their family members. We have cultural deficits and blind spots that the public education system should address.

2. The ability to both make mistakes and to suffer consequences. Some of my most painful memories are of times when I committed a racist act as a child ― often simply by copying another White classmate. But there were Black educators in the room who taught us better.

3. Active, sustained engagement with parents to achieve buy-in for anti-racist curriculum. Parents, not politicians, have undercut these efforts in the past. I was held accountable not only at school but also at home. This work will be slow, incremental, difficult and fragile. But it can be done, and it has been done, when political interests and public outrage have converged at the right time.

With the horrific attack in Charlottesville, we may be at such a point once again. The bold resurgence of white supremacy into the open makes it more possible to attack it systematically through policy solutions that are local, state and federal in origin. It’s not enough to send condolences and issue condemnations. Demand that our elected representatives propose very real solutions to break the cycle of ignorance that continues to seduce young White men with a toxic brew of an imagined, fictional past.