Though I hate to admit it, I was once that well-meaning White teacher – the one that comes from a wealthy family, chooses to teach in a “poor, urban school,” the one who wrote in my cover letter that I wanted to be the “engaging teacher” with a “racial justice pedagogy” who could help his Black students “overcome their tough life circumstances.”
I was the teacher who said things like, “These kids just don’t have the best educational supports at home, so we really need to step in and model for them.”
Despite my “racial justice pedagogy,” I said nothing when my colleagues complained that “these students have to want to learn if I’m going to teach!”
I don’t mean to be self-depreciating, but I “just wanted to close the achievement gap.” And, sadly, I’m not alone.
Many of us fail to acknowledge that terms like “the achievement gap” place the responsibility of change on students – and specifically poor and working class students of Color.
Yet, in my experience offering professional development to educators, most of the White teachers I work with are well-intentioned despite the damage we may be doing with these victim-blaming, deficit-oriented beliefs.
However, when at least 80% of our teachers in the United States are White and the most powerful decision makers tend to be White or are pushing White-designed models of reform, is it any wonder that we inaccurately perceive this country’s educational inequity as being the result of a student-deficit “achievement gap” – a term dating back to White “reformers” of the 1960s – rather than, say, systemic oppression and marginalization?
This isn’t to say that we aren’t trying.
Increasingly, progressive educators are looking for alternatives in our language and reform methods that actually address the root causes of our educational injustice.
But here are some things that we really need to think through if we want to really improve the system.
Who Do Our Schools Serve – And Why?
Let’s be honest: Public education was created to serve as an entry point for lower-to-middle-wealth White people into the American middle class (by preparing White students for success in industry and farming).
Schools in the United States have always been tools for consolidating wealth into White hands, even when some people of Color have found success in these systems.
Even Brown v. Board, the landmark Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools, didn’t serve to decenter Whiteness.
The “integration” of Brown v. Board didn’t change the White supremacist roots of education; it simply demanded that students of Color enter White schools, bend themselves to White systems, and learn from White teachers.
When we see our education system through this lens, we understand that it serves not only to consolidate White power and wealth, but to ensure that people of Color cannot succeed.
Yet when they don’t, they are blamed for their own lack of “achievement” in a supposedly “race neutral” system.
Notably the modern disparities in our educational system have come into starker contrast during this age of endless data collection from No Child Left Behind.
However, much of this data is used to judge and critique populations our schools were never designed to serve in the first place.
When we take these numbers at face value, we see that Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, and Black students trail their White and Asian peers by huge margins in every academic area:
Further, Asian success in the US education system is regularly used to “disprove” the idea that our schools are built upon White supremacy, but to understand Asian success in US schools is to understand the history of White supremacy that undergirds the Asian success story in the United States.
After all, the number one predictor of educational success in the US is parental education, andsince the Chinese Exclusion Act, the US has let in relatively few Asian immigrants without advanced degrees.
However, when we examine the NAEP data by parent’s education, though, we see that poorer, less academically educated Asians (such as Hmong refugees) and Whites – while still outperforming Latinx, Indigenous, and Black students – struggle to find the same success as those whose parents are well educated.
And simply put, when our schools have been set up to serve Whites while excluding all but a few people of Color, it makes sense that White people are far more likely to have an advanced education.
In fact, Black men in the US actually must have a higher level of education than White men to get the same jobs, so even when those who’ve been left out of the system succeed, the deck is stacked against them!
In the face of this tremendous disparity, no longer can we avoid placing responsibility where it belongs.
The Education Debt
In her 2006 address entitled From Achievement Gap to Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings explains,
The yearly fluctuations in the achievement gap give us a short-range picture of how student perform on a particular set of achievement measures. Looking at the gap from year to year is a misleading exercise.”
Instead, we must not focus on the gaps in achievement, but must zoom the lens out to understand the broader picture where “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society have created an education debt.”
When we refuse to invest properly in the education of those with the least access, we see the results in our test scores and in every other measure of injustice in our society: poverty, employment, wealth accumulation, health disparity, exposure to violence and stress, and so on.
Ladson-Billings goes on to describe the ways that each form of debt – historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral – creates a demand for accountability that places responsibility with those who run the educational and economic systems that enforce this debt.
Thus, we have a responsibility to shift our language and approach in education away from a victim-blaming, deficit-oriented gap model and toward addressing the startling education debt.
This is of particular importance for White educators, as we are those with the most power to further entrench the debt.
Just as much as White educators tend to reify the education debt, we also have the power to help repay it, particularly when we are led by communities, parents, students, and educators of Color.
Repaying the Education Debt
Thus, drawing upon the analysis of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, here are some of the ways that we can begin to repay the tremendous debt that is owed to students of Color in the US.
1. Address Funding Injustice
The educational debt rests upon hundreds of years of unequal funding that persists today.
While adequate funding alone cannot settle the debt, it can go a long way to providing the resources needed to create just schools.
In the school where I taught, an almost all-Black school in a neighborhood of Chicago where 99% of students live in inter-generational poverty, about $9,000 per pupil per year was spent on the students.
In the nearby New Trier High School, just 24 miles away in a mostly White suburb, spending per pupil totaled $21,000 per pupil.
My classroom had one set of textbooks for all 9th grade social studies students, while New Trier offered a rich array of courses and extra-curriculars.
Taken over generations, this unequal funding, not only in our schools but in nearby social services, creates a tremendous debt.
However, to repay this debt, we should not simply strive for funding equality.
There should be disparity in education funding. We should be spending more on our schools in the lowest-wealth (disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous) communities than in wealthy, predominantly White communities.
That doesn’t mean that we should cut funding to wealthy, White schools. So long as we think about our problems in education from a model of scarcity, we forever lose.
However, a massive, disproportionate investment in education in our lowest-wealth communities would go a long way toward reducing class size and offering robust student resources in the least-served communities while addressing the racialized wealth debt in the long term.
As educators, we must be the ones leading the charge to address this funding inequity.