All for None: The Racial Failure of the Duncan/Obama Agenda

Barack Obama

Barack Obama at the Urban League Conference Discussing Education

“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These were the words that echoed throughout the mind of many Americans as they watched Barack Obama ascend from a state senator to a prominent Democratic US Senate candidate. These words also echoed into the psyche and the rhetoric that has surrounded the idea that we currently live in a post-racial America. Who knew that in three short years he would be elected the first African-American president of the United States? What better indication that we truly live in a post racial America?

Ronald Takaki wrote in his book A Different Mirror using Maya Angelou’s words, “Race has functioned as a metaphor necessary to the construction of Americaness in the creation of our national identity. ‘American’ has been defined as white.” American has been defined a white. As inflammatory as one may see these words, there is truth to those words. Mr. Takaki went on to talk about how a cab driver thought he was immigrant, because he has Japanese heritage although his family had been in America for 100 years. The cab driver (whether intentionally or unintentionally) has portrayed the fact that a “Post-Racial America” is a nice idea, but doesn’t align itself with the actual reality of the situation.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama working with his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has ascribed to the idea that because we are all “American” that their “revolutionary” education reform plan Race to the Top is a measure that will benefit everyone equally. As Tim Wise discusses “To be fair, of course, the rhetoric of post-racial liberalism wasn’t something invented by the current President. Rather, it has its roots in the period immediately following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance — an advisor to President Johnson before becoming a United States Senator — who first suggested that the nation would do well to engage in “benign neglect” when it came to the issue of race.” However, the “benign neglect” doesn’t just affect the rhetoric or the discussion it affects the future of Black Americans, Hispanic Americas, Asian Americans, Arabs Americans, etc. Why? Because despite what people may want to believe in their hearts, the history, experiences, and position of these people are very different from each other. A one-size-fit-all approach to education reform in his country is NOT the answer. Furthermore, reform measures like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTP) will not solve the problems of everyone. What it does it is make “Americans” be able to sleep at night.

Jonathan Kozol in his book Shame of the Nation discusses the paradigm of the one-size-fit-all approach.

“New Vocabularies of stentorian determination, new systems of incentives and new models of castigation are termed “rewards and sanctions,” have emerged. Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as “the special needs and learning styles”…a new empiricism and the imposition of usually detailed lists of named and number “outcomes” for each isolated parcel of instruction…are just a few of the familiar aspects of the new adaptive strategies.”

I read a lot of education blogs and education newspaper columnists who praise these efforts as a way of turning around education for “everyone.” However Kozol sheds light on the actual outcome. “Although generically described as “school reform” most of these practices and polices are targeted primarily at poor children of color.” Isn’t that what I am arguing for in this blog? Yes/No, yes I am arguing for a targeted approach however, not an approach that is “valued chiefly as responses to perceived catastrophe in deeply segregated and unequal schools.” (Kozol, 64) In other words, “Americans” cannot tell people of colour what the problem is when they are the creators of the problems then in turn mandate a solution. At the bare minimum, there is a conflict of interest.

The “Conflict of Interest” reform polices of Bush/Spellings and Obama/Duncan are prevalent in NCLB and RTTP. The policies ask for the creation of choice in public schooling so parents can choose a “better school” for their child. There has never been a mention of historically disinvestment in public schools that has been documented in many narratives including Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. The policies punish schools (teachers in RTTP) for failing students. However, there is no mention of the lack of resources for schools/teachers that has been a consistent problem and complaint since for decades in urban/rural school districts. The policies call for the creation of high stakes tests so that the government knows whether or not the students are succeeding. However, no one discusses that fact that these test typically measure the bare minimum in standards and do assess for other aspects of the students including “soft” skill increasingly seen as important in a service-based job market. Theoretically speaking I could go on and on, but I am going to choose to stop. Not because I feel that I’ve driven in the point, because all of this misses the ball.

My experience working with students of colour has presented me with a set of challenges that I have not seen addressed by the policies of Spellings/Bush and Duncan/Obama. I have had students who are homeless and the only meal of the day is the lunch at school. I have had students who have vision problems, but cannot afford glasses. Even if they get public assisted glasses, they have to wait for weeks and fall behind in school. I have had students whose older siblings are molesting them everyday, but afraid to say anything under the fear of being “stuck in the system.” I have had students who have no one to go home to at the end of the day, and therefore no one to keep them accountable for their homework assignments. I have had students who wanted to complete my research paper, but don’t have a computer at home to type it on and complain that the library doesn’t have word processing. While, these problems are not unique to students of colour in urban/rural school districts they have chronically been seen as prevalent problems. However, there is very little discussion of these problems. This is a reflection of not only a failed education policy, but also the fact that a post-racial America doesn’t exist. It is only when are ready to have a REAL discussion. We need a real discussion of the SPECIFIC historical and contemporary disadvantages of students of colour in urban/rural school district. We need a discussion that will make “Americans” feel uncomfortable. As long as we continue to believe that is not happening, we allow “Americans” to hide behind the notion of a post-racial America.

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About mpal219
Educator, Student, Reader, Reformer, & Activist

One Response to All for None: The Racial Failure of the Duncan/Obama Agenda

  1. Roland says:

    Incredible. Its remarkable how current education discussions leave out these multiple variables, establishing “tests” that rarely scrape beneath the surface. With discomfort comes purpose-driven discussion and only then can we see results. Excellent blog!

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