Tag: Critical Race Theory

Creating Risk

Creating Risk

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Minnesota state officials recently released the Minnesota Readiness Study showing that children of color and children who live in poverty are “less likely to be considered ready for kindergarten”[1] than their White and middle class counterparts.  As we try to understand, I want to focus attention on the notion of what it means to be “ready” for kindergarten.

According to a 2010 report[2] summary, the Minnesota Department of Education defines readiness as:

The skills, knowledge, behaviors, and accomplishments that children should know and be able to do as they enter kindergarten in the following areas of child development: personal and social development; language and literacy; mathematical thinking; physical development; the arts.[3]

Although I understand given the pressure to produce a highly educated and qualified citizenry that there is such emphasis of skill and knowledge development for five year olds; I do believe that these indicators, don’t tell the full story.  Not only that, but I am even more alarmed when last year’s summary goes on to “[c]onclud[e] that the result of the School Readiness Study are predictive of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) proficiency outcomes at grade three, especially in reading and math…”[4]

Essentially this report, like so many others like it, indicates that poor children and children of color not only enter school behind, but are more likely not to catch up to their White and middle class peers even by third grade.  To go further, many education reports like these and the subsequent media coverage contribute to a narrative and mental model that lead people to believe that it is the fault of the parents, the home environment, the culture, or circumstances that no one can control that leads to such disparate outcomes.  This is implied due to the emphasis that these kids are behind even before they enter school.  However, for a moment, let’s suppose we take this at face value and agree children enter into kindergarten at different levels of “readiness” in terms of their skills and knowledge.  So what?  To me, the obvious solution is to teach them the skills they need to be “ready” for kindergarten.  Is that such a radical notion?  It is true that learning accumulates with some skills building from others, but does that mean that once behind, always behind?  I would guess that in a country like our own that prides itself on upward mobility and the self-making of each citizen, the rather obvious conclusion should be no.  Yet, that’s exactly what happens.  Why?

To answer this, I go back to one of the first texts I read as a graduate student, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words (1983)[5].  She studied three communities, Roadville, a predominantly White working class community; Trackton, a predominantly Black working class community; and the Townspeople, a more racially mixed middle-class community.  She examined the orientation and use of language that each community exhibited in their day-to-day interactions amongst each other, and especially with their young children and looked at how their relationship with literacy and language related to their children’s degrees of success in school.  Heath found that each set of students entered with different relationships, understanding, skills, and knowledge of literacy and that school heavily favored the orientation and skills that the Townspeople’s children brought with them to the detriment to the other students.  It wasn’t that children from Trackton and Roadville didn’t know, but that they had different ways with words.  Specifically Heath (1983) says, “The school’s approach to reading and learning establishes decontextualized skills as foundational in the hierarchy of academic skills,” (p. 353) which indicates the need to reassess how school approaches such skills and knowledge and examines who is privileged in this process and who is marginalized.  Without this understanding and without taking the time to examine the taken-for-granted knowledge and skills teachers bring from their own homes and then perpetuate in the classroom, the achievement gap will continue to exist.  As she says,

The school is not a neutral objective arena; it is an institution which has the goal of changing people’s values, skills, and knowledge bases.  Yet some portions of the population, such as the townspeople, bring with them to school linguistic and cultural capital accumulated through hundreds of thousands of occasions for practicing the skills and espousing the values the schools transmit…

In any case, unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of townspeople who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life (p. 367-369).

My point is that such reports, while sounding the alarm are indicating all the wrong sources for the achievement gap.  It is not that students enter kindergarten deficit of skills, it’s that kindergarten in its current form is not created to recognize and honor the skills children bring with them and utilize those skills as a means of learning others.  It’s a lack of knowledge, interest, and skills built into the institution itself that fails to welcome all its citizenry with the same equitable embrace as those who best exhibit the institution’s own ideologies and ways of knowing and being.  Until we change that, I believe we will continue to create risk where none actually exists.


[1] See Tom Weber, “Achievement gap exists for kids even before kindergartenMinnesota Public Radio.

[2] Due to technical errors, the report from this year is inaccessible online; therefore, I used the summaries and results from last year’s report, which makes many of the same points.

[3] See School Readiness Study Summary found HERE.

[4] Also see the School Readiness Study Summary.

[5] Heath, Ways with Words Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

The Meaning of Memorial Day

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“What is Memorial Day for, Mom?”  This was the question from my 9-year-old son as we sat at the dinner table on the night before the holiday  His 6-year-old brother cocked his head at me, eyes wide, waiting for “the answer.”  As I related to him what I had always been told (i.e., that it’s a day to remember the soldiers who died for our country), I realized that I didn’t know anything about the origin of the holiday or even which war prompted it.  Unsatisfied with my own knowledge, I did some quick research and uncovered something interesting but not surprising–a counterstory.

The majoritarian story credits General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Union Army’s veterans organization), for his 1868 call for all veterans and their communities to hold ceremonies and decorate the graves of soliders who had died in the Civil War.   This practice spread across the nation.  Thereafter, cities in both the north and south claimed the first Memorial Day, but none date back as far as what Yale historian David Blight discovered in his research.

According to Blight, Memorial Day was created by blacks, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, in Charleston, South Carolina.  As Blight tells us:

“Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers’ valor and sacrifice.”

[Blight also reminds us that states in the south celebrate(d) Confederate Memorial Day: April 26 (the day General Joseph Johnston surrendered to General William T. Sherman) in many deep South states; May 10 (Stonewall Jackson’s birthday) in the Carolinas; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’s birthday) in Virginia.]

I now have a counterstory to tell my sons–one that places people of color in the center.  And, I was reminded of a lesson I have learned and, for some reason, must keep relearning.  “All such stories … are but prelude to future reckonings. All memory is prelude.”  Thank you, David Blight.

Read the full David Blight article here.

Read an interesting blog article on the topic here.

Race Neutrality in the Obama Era

Race Neutrality in the Obama Era

Reading Time: < 1 minute

A recent story in the L.A. Times titled “Despite pressure from black activists, black support for Obama’s race-neutral stance is high” suggests that “average black folks” buy into Obama’s stance/strategy that a rising tide will lift African American boats.  Without taking issue with Washington on whether the black folks he interviewed in Charlotte, NC are “average,” I find  it hard to believe that whether black folks buy into a revised version of trickle-down economics is really the issue.  We have long been told (and politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have proven) that a black politician with an overtly black agenda is not acceptable to white America.  Thus, we understand that a race-conscious stance/strategy would be political suicide for Obama.  That said, I do not believe Obama’s stance is entirely race-neutral.  Rather, Obama is focusing on issues that are critical to eliminating racial disparities–issues like universal health care and quality education.  Further, he is doing so with the express intent to benefit all. Perhaps if we recognized that eliminating racial disparities is in the best interest of all of our citizens–and in the best interest of our democracy–our first African American president could be more explicit.  Until then, we may have to settle for a black president who has to couch his strategies in terms of interests the white power structure believes are theirs alone.  And, in doing so, we might actually see some change we can all believe in.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype Threat

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In July 2009, REL Southeast at SERVE Center, UNC, Greensboro,  published the Issues and Answers brief for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) titled Reducing stereotype threat in the classroom: A Review of social-psychological intervention studies on improving the achievement of Black students.  The authors tell us that “stereotype threat arises from a fear among members of a group of reinforcing negative stereotypes about the intellectual ability of the group” (p.i).  Without intervention, stereotype threat has a negative effect on student performance for members of such groups.

The brief considers only “rigorous research” and finds support for the following three classroom social-psychological strategies for reducing stereotype threat: (1) reinforce for students the idea that intelligence is expandable and, like a muscle, grows stronger when worked; (2) teach students that their difficulties in school are often part of a normal “learning curve” or adjustment process, rather than something unique to them or their racial group; and (3) help students reflect on other values in their lives beyond school that are sources of self-worth for them.  The report also notes several limitations of the study that are of great importance.  First, the report notes that the underlying search was very focused and included only those interventions that have been tried in real school settings.  This means that there may be other equally or even more effective interventions out there.  Second, the studies were small in scope and their replicability is unknown.   Thus, the authors urge readers to share ideas for reducing stereotype threat even if they are in the developmental stages.

The authors also make some important concluding points.  First, they suggests educators will need to adapt the strategies for their own contexts so as not to lose the spirit of the interventions.  Second, they suggest the timing of the intervention might be critical (one study focused on 7th grade students) as there may be “windows of opportunity for influencing student attitudes and beliefs” (p.13) and interventions might be more effective at particular times during the school year.  Perhaps the most telling point, however, is the last one.  The authors tell us that no social-psychological intervention can make up for lack of learning, motivate unmotivated students, or turn a low-performing and underfunded school into a model school.  They go on to say:

“More generally, the interventions would not work if there were not broader positive forces in the school environment (committed staff, quality curriculum) operating to facilitate student learning and performance. Without these broader positive forces, social-psychological interventions, while potentially reducing psychological threat levels for some students, would be unlikely to boost student learning and achievement. However, when these broader positive forces are in place, social-psychological interventions such as those reported on here may help Black and other minority students to overcome stereotype threat and improve their performance in school” (p.14)

Congratulations to REL Southwest for getting such an important Issues and Answers brief published.  However, let us not lose sight that these interventions do not directly challenge the system that perpetuates negative stereotypes about the intellectual ability of these groups in the first place.  Rather, they place the burden on students of color and the educators who care about their achievement rather than on the system that makes such interventions necessary in the first place.  Thus, stereotype threat interventions are a short-term strategy that may be part of a longer-term strategy to disrupt systemic racism and other social forces that serve current power structures.  They are not in and of themselves sufficient to transform education.

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