SOS Conference 2012, Day Two Afternoon

After lunch I today attended a session by Karran Harper Royal called “How [Some] African Americans Got on the Wrong Side of the Education Debate." Karran is a parent turned activist, founding member of a fabulous organization known as Parents Across America (I encourage all parents to look into it), and personal hero of both myself and Xian Barett. Karran became an activist after having difficulties twenty years ago with one of her children in kindergarten. She worried that if he didn’t get help, he would get put on a wrong track and that he might not be able to get off.

Karran’s message throughout her talk was that corporate reform’s message is very tempting, and it's excellent at swaying uninformed people, especially poor and minority families who have long histories of negative relationships with their public schools. When charter schools come in waving their uniforms and their money and their “dedication to equity,” Karran says they’re very, very difficult to resist. She even noted that she too was once swayed by their lures (look at a picture below for evidence), but when former New Orleans School Superintendent Paul Vallas (who has since moved on to Haiti and now Connecticut to promote the privatization of public education) began lying to her and avoiding her, she began to question his intentions. After a few uncomfortable interactions, she began to realize corporate reform was interested in working with minority communities only so long as it served the purpose of bringing charters and private corporations to the community. You can see Karran give Vallas an earful below.

Karran spoke with disgust at Arne Duncan’s remarks suggesting the Hurricane Katrina was one of the best things to happen to the New Orleans public school system, which is now an “all-choice district.” But despite being an all-choice district, it is still very difficult for families to get their children into their preferred schools, and especially their neighborhood schools. Karran even referenced a university president who was forced to put his child in private schools after the public schools wouldn’t take him because he came into the district after the enrollment date. She also noted having met many special education students who have been in as many as seven different schools since Katrina, as schools trade off the students most expensive and difficult to educate.
Karran with Vallas before the earful

Karran was incensed at the ALEC logo on the Lousiana State Legislature’s website, and that salaries of principals at charters were immensely higher than traditional public schools. She decried organizations like the Black Alliance for Educational Options and people like Oprah Winfrey, Barak Obama, and Kira Orange Jones as being on the wrong side of the education debate.

Karran ended by calling on all of us to communicate with those on the other side, saying “We must educate them.” She urged that educators get political, because teaching, in and of itself, is necessarily a political act anyway. And lastly, she noted that she doesn't think young people in Teach for America want to oppress people, she just doesn’t think they understand they’re part of a system that does.

Sherick speaks; James looks on
In my next session I had the opportunity to lesson to Dr. Sherick Hughes and Dr. James Martinez speak about the issue of disproportionality, referring to the reality of poor and minority students being overrepresented in special education populations and harsh disciplinary actions, and underrepresented in gifted programs. Sherick noted that upon coming across black children being suspended for ridiculous amounts of time for seemingly minor infractions, he could not find himself angry at teachers or principals. Rather, he felt immensely frustrated with a system that doesn’t want these kids in schools because of how they’ll hurt schools’ test scores.

Sherick said he believes living in a prejudiced society rubs off on all of us. He said that it can get in our hair, our clothes, into our skin, and penetrate our thinking if we’re not careful. He cautioned everyone against the little racist in all of us that might accidentally assign a white student a higher evaluation than a black student for performing the exact same task.

After Sherick, Dr. James Martinez spoke. James talked about deficit thinking, which is when we think first to blame the victim in our reaction to people’s perceived failures. “Well, if they weren’t so lazy, they wouldn’t be poor.” or “If those poor people didn’t spend all their money on bling, maybe they could save something, go to college, and be happy like the rest of us.” Jamie-Jin Lewis (from my Day 1 session, and a participant in this one) noted that this thinking comes from a dominant culture that preferences its biases, and views as inferior other cultures’ characteristics that don’t fall in line with the dominant culture’s expectations. For example: black and brown children don’t do well on test scores; they’re not like the white culture; so they’re failing.

James pointed out that if the majority culture was failing standardized tests in large numbers, something within the system would change. We would not expect the white majority to change in that case. In this way, he argued that it is largely the system that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequality.

Later in the session, Sherick came back to speak and said that there are four primary myths that contribute to systematic implementation of prejudiced policy:

1) Poor people don’t value education
2) Poor people are lazy
3) Poor people are on drugs
4) Poor people are linguistically deficient

Sherick seemed particularly disturbed with the final myth. He said that teachers telling children that they don’t know how to speak properly, or that only ignorant people speak like them, often makes them either rebel against the teacher or ashamed of the people who raised them.

During the talk, I noted two pieces of work Sherick and James referenced as possible things to look into: Paul Gorski’s work debunking Ruby Payne and Patricia Hill Collins's “Matrix of Oppresion.”

After Sherick and James’s talk, we moved on to listen to Deborah Meier speak.

Deborah noted that she preferred this year’s smaller conference as an opportunity for people to really get on the same page, unlike last year’s conference, which had many more people. She then moved on to the heart of her speech, which was about the importance of teaching children democracy.

Deborah said she thinks that talking about and teaching democracy is as fraught with complications as talking about or teaching race and class. “Think about all of the contradictions we hope children are not paying attention to, mostly so we can continue to live those contradictions, and try not to think about them ourselves.” She also noted that she thinks we’re more touchy about teaching democracy than teaching sex.

As an educator, Deborah tried to value the voice of students as much as possible. She said she believed children need the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of making decisions at their school and being part of the ruling elite; it gives them agency.

The rest of Deborah's speech hammered on the importance of freethinking. “People say you shouldn’t argue in the presence of kids. I have the opposite viewpoint. I think you should primarily argue in front of them, when possible." She was making the point that children need the opportunity to see decisions being made, and practice making their own decisions individually, and as a group. She said democracy does not come to people naturally. They need to practice it, and live it. If we don’t provide that in our schools, what hope do we have for it flourishing in a society where few adults have first-hand experience with it?

“We should be less worried about people misusing their freedom than not using it at all,” said Deborah.

After Deborah Meier’s speech, I had the pleasure of eating Indian food with Michelle Strater Gunderson, Lauren Cohen, Katie Osgood, Dov Rosenberg, Chris Cerone, and Tim Slekar before returning for the event of the night, Jonathan Kozol.

When we returned, Kozol was in the middle of speaking of our corporate society’s attempt to turn children into factory workers, as he sees it. He lamented how happiness, hilarity, and tenderness are not allowed in schools for poor and minority children, where their days are spent standing in lines and filling in bubbles. “Don’t waste time on useless things like imagination or hilarity. This is the last thing an industrial society needs.”

Kozol went on to call recent waivers the DOE has been granting to states for meeting their NCLB goals “waivers from existential absurdity.” Those states won’t have to do something nobody thought they would ever be able to do - get 100% of students to pass  high-stakes tests in only a few years.

Kozol went on to criticize the superficial naming of charter schools, as if “Nobel Academy” was a place poor students could go if they wanted to win a Nobel prize. He also noted that richer schools in the city of New York are routinely raising $1 million per year from parents with no obligation to share that money with schools serving children who hardly have enough money to eat. All of this is leading to a loss of “meritocracy, if we ever had one, and a narrowing of civic virtue.”
Small class sizes are one of the most important elements of a quality education, said Kozol, referring to two of the best known private schools in the United States whose class sizes are capped at 12 and 13. “If that’s good enough for rich kids, then it ought to be good enough for poor kids.” A stark contrast from districts like Detroit, which just signed a contract with teachers allowing for as many as 61 students per class.

Finally, Kozol told the story of one of the most asked about students in his writing, Pineapple, who, as a child, constantly criticized him for his dress and demeanor. Today, Kozol noted, Pineapple is a senior in college, and has decided to stay an extra year so she can earn a teaching credential and return to her community in the South Bronx to become a teacher.

The theme was the same as the work of Kozol’s life and career. Our policies continue to perpetuate a system of savage inequalities, truly the shame of our nation. And while there may be plenty out there who want to correct those injustices, and give and work tirelessly for that cause, “charity is no substitute for justice.”

It is fundamentally a system and society we work to better. I can think of no greater endeavor.

For more blogging from the SOS Conference, see Norm Scott's post here.


  1. James, see this blog I host with Gorski re: Payne:

  2. James, thanks for blogging so thoughtfully about a session I wasn't able to attend. I have been processing everything we learned and shared at SOS this weekend. I am wondering what my personal actions are regarding Obama's disastrous education policies. I agree with Kozol that rethinking ed policy and Duncan could be a game changer in this election. Your thoughts?
    Michelle Gunderson

    1. Hi Michelle. So good to have met you in DC, and thanks for commenting.

      Man - I hope so. I think it'll take a lot of us yelling at him really loudly.

  3. Thanks for this post, James. I missedsome of the best presentations you reviewed on Day 2 because I was tied up with my own. You helped my fill in the blanks.

    1. Thank YOU, Mike, for your work on the Steering Committee and providing some excellent presentation opportunities.

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