Dirk Tillotson

We Have a Serious Problem in Education Reform and It's Not What You Think

We have a serious “other people’s children” problem in education reform. Many if not most of the spokespeople and decision makers, really don’t represent or often understand the communities they are “reforming.” This has a distorting effect on the reforms and also gives folks the often real impression that reforms are being done to them rather than with them. When parents are polled around the general outlines of reform—parental choices of schools, charter schools and accountability based on achievement—they agree and are generally positive, but I bet if you asked parents in many “reforming” communities whether they liked the advocates of reform—the numbers would be radically lower, and marked by distrust. And when you work with reformers, you get where this mistrust comes from. Most of the people really making decisions are white. They did not grow up or teach—for more than the two-year Teach For America commitment—in the hood and their kids would never go to the schools they are advocating for. Let me repeat, they would never ever send their kids to the schools that they praise, no matter where they're located. Their children need to experiment and have self-directed learning with projects, the arts, small class sizes and differentiation. A fertile ground for individual development. The schools they praise have all the black and brown kids sitting quietly, tracking the teacher with their eyes automatically, never talking out of turn or getting up, walking silently in line, eating lunch silently—they are models of social control. While there are “no excuses” for aberrant student behavior or families, the staff have abundant excuses around the students they can’t serve, and who are quietly shown the door, punished into expulsion or more likely, voluntary withdrawal. I could replay a hundred different “conversations” I have had with reformers, on how race doesn’t really matter (“it’s all class”), on their misguided educational theories (too many to quote), how not all kids can be prepared for college (though their kids can of course), the problem with black culture (“there isn’t one”), or a host of other things that make you want to punch someone, literally or rhetorically. In particular, I had this long conversation with a “Thurston Howell, III” type on the importance of schools having strong academics and cultural competency. Growing up, I was one of the very few students of color. I did well academically, but culturally felt put off by school, and felt invisible as a result of a white-based curriculum. I gave a long impassioned plea around the need for kids to understand their history and themselves from a positive place. I thought, “this guy is going to get it.” He sums up our conversation, by repeating the stereotype that for black kids in the black community academic achievement is frowned on, and that they will get called “punks” for doing well in school when they get home. We were done. Probably two decades ago now, I read Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, which, to oversimplify, looked at how schools and interactions with students of color embed a whole set of assumptions about student capacity, motivations, integrity and potential, and when one looked objectively at these schools, it played out every day in the way some schools are structured and the way educators interact with children—with predicable racial effects. These lessons reverberate even moreso as I climb the education reform hierarchy. I am painting this landscape with an overly broad brush. I have met some reformers who have focused on listening, tried to understand their own limits and blind spots (which we all have), and have had true empathy for students but they are the exception. Many view our communities through a lens of pathos and dysfunction—and see those traits as indigenous and not a reflection of the broader historical dynamics. And so our kids need to be controlled, and good schools do that. Change is hard, and reform is always a fight, but we need to do a better job of generating and supporting authentic leaders, who not only know how to fight but what we should be fighting for. If “winning” means a set of “no-excuses” compliance factories to house poor, black and brown students, I think I might be on the wrong team.
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. An earlier version of this post appeared on his blog, Silent Majority Oakland, as Ed Reform’s “Other People's Children” Problem.
Dirk Tillotson
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...

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