If we’re going to discuss education, we cannot leave out the family. Students are children first, which means they aren’t born in a classroom, they’re born into families. The family forms the first environment in which a young child develops.

One of my dearly beloved professors and I have wonderful debates on a weekly basis about social justice and education—because I make him have these debates with me, and he kindly obliges (probably secretly rolling his eyes when I walk through the door).

In my last post, I discussed the issue of teacher quality and the lack of strategies established at the state and federal level to consistently recruit, teach and develop excellent educators. But my professor decided to rail me in our discussion, insisting that, essentially, teachers are only half the story. Parents, he fervently asserted, parents are part of, if not the root of, the reason for students’ lack of achievement.

While there is no doubt evidence that family environments have a crucial impact on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development, I think a concerted and genuine effort to bridge the gap between parents and educators can help to mitigate the challenges that parents and children from lower-income communities face.

This requires incorporating social justice classes into teacher education, first and foremost.

What often happens among white, middle class teachers is the otherization of parents from lower classes. This kind of otherization is, I believe, the result of a grave misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that is rooted in the fallacious meritocratic theory of success. When teachers harbor this kind of misconception of the “other,” i.e. parents from lower classes, they not only marginalize those parents further but they also maintain an ideology within the classroom that marginalizes those parents’ children.

There is a serious and detrimental lack of cultural synchronization between teacher and child, and teacher and parent.

Too often parents are dismissed as negligent or are perceived as not caring about their child’s success. This kind of assertion teems with misunderstanding and prejudice.

For parents from the working class, caring about their child’s academic success—whether they’re doing well on tests, turning in their homeworking, behaving in class as the teacher demands, learning the essentials—is often not feasible in the way many educators would like. Not all parents have the time to check their child’s homework, study with their children for their tests, or give them a quiet room in which they can do their work. Many of these parents work multiple jobs, work the night shift, and/or just don’t have the resources.

Furthermore, too many parents—especially those that come from lower-income communities—don’t understand the inherent value of school because they didn’t experience it. Many parents’ aspirations for their children are to land a job out of high school so they can contribute to the family income. Too many parents have been jaded by the system that has oppressed them—a system that is so ingrained into the fabric of American life that they don’t even think to fight it.

The issue is so much bigger than just parents. I would venture to say that a tiny fraction of parents actually don’t care about their children. The majority just doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the hope that education will be their ticket out of poverty.

The bigger issue—and the issue that future and current teachers alike absolutely must understand—is that our country and the institutional and social structures that comprise it are riddled with racism and classism, which ensures that people of color and the poor are locked out of middle class privileges.

If our teachers learn only pedagogical methods in school and fail to learn and comprehend the social workings of this country (which seems like the very thing a school in conservative Oklahoma would leave out) then they are only half qualified (if even) for the profession.

We cannot blame the oppressed for their own oppression.

When we moved into a real house for the first time, my mother was determined that we should live in the district of the best public school around. And so we did.

For two years, I went to public school before my mother became dissatisfied and sent me, once again, to a private school. I stayed there for a year and a half before money got really tight and I was forced to go back to my public school in the middle of my sophomore year. But having come from all the best schools, and having a mother who was very much involved in my school experience, I was unquestionably placed on the advanced track.

While my other peers were learning how to get by, I was learning how to write college-level essays. While they were bored in class, my teachers constantly challenged me. While they were locked in a classroom culture that devalued achievement, I was surrounded by students with ambition and motivation. While my other peers were expected to pass, I was expected to excel.

I graduated in the top two percent of my class of over 700 students. On the stage of my high school graduation, where all the top students sat, were the same students that had been plucked by the system and placed on the advanced track.
One of the most fundamental problems with the tracking system in primary and secondary education is that it systematically creates and maintains our stratified society. This system deems some students worthy of the best education and some students worthy of the worst. It challenges some students to exceed what is expected of them, and it limits other students to achieve the bare minimum.

The immediate implications of this tracking system are that only a fraction of the students that graduate are ready for college. The medium-term implications are that the standard in colleges, specifically state universities, becomes lowered because so great a percentage of the students don’t have the basic skills necessary for college-level success.

To compound the problem, people of color and the poor tend to be placed on the lowest academic tracks. For example, black students, “particularly black male students, are three times as likely to be in class for the educable mentally retarded as are white students, but only one-half as likely to be in class for the gifted or talented” (Black Students and School Failure, Irvine, p. 11). Researchers have concluded that “two-thirds or more of high-ability, high [socioeconomic status] students were in the academic track, but only one-half of the high-ability, low [socioeconomic status] students were enrolled in the academic track” (11).

This is an example of the re-segregation taking place in schools today, in which students of color are placed on different academic tracks because of pervasive, conscious and/or subconscious racist beliefs of their inferiority.

The immediate impact of the tracking system in primary and secondary education is displayed in college enrollment and dropout rates. In 2010, 60.5 percent of white students enrolled in college, compared to a mere 14.5 percent of black students, 13 percent of Hispanic students, 6.1 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students, and .9 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students.

Moreover, many of those students of color that do make it to college find that they are not prepared—academically, financially or socially—for college. Only 20.4 percent of black students, 27.9 percent of Hispanic students, and 21.8 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students graduated from college in 2008. The graduation rates for Asian/Pacific Islander and white students were 45 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively.

Programs with a mission to equalize education are not enough. They are a painkiller rather than an antibiotic. The problem is much deeper, much more complex and far too multi-faceted for certain ingredients in the prescription to make any real, lasting difference. Our schools need holistic reformation. It is more than just misallocation or unfair distribution of resources in the education system. There is something else going on—something far more intentional than we’d like to believe.

We must realize our education system is actively promoting hierarchies based on racial and ethnic discrimination while hiding behind the glossy shield of programs with “good intentions.”
When my family came to the United States, they endured the struggles of immigrants who’d left everything behind on their island home. But they left as upper middle class white Jamaican Anglophiles and arrived, fairly well-received, as middle class whites with strange accents but similar cultural nuances. Assimilation was not exceptionally difficult. America was certainly a far cry from the slow and steady pace of island life, but they still enjoyed certain middle-class luxuries.

My mother was raised in this context.  Both her parents worked—one as a teacher the other as an airplane auditor. They had a nice home in Denver, Colorado. They weren’t rich but certainly not poor. Just average, middle-class people. 

They moved to Oklahoma when my mother was a teenager, and she became pregnant at the age of 18. It was only then that their middle-class life was rocked by the crises that lower-income families face regularly. My mother experienced a setback—a teen mom with no education above a high school diploma, she would seemingly be relegated to menial jobs.
A great majority of people in this country would say that racism is abhorrent. But what most people don’t understand is that racism is more than just overt prejudice against people of color. Certainly, we can all agree that facial racism unfortunately does still exist, just as it did in the past.

But there is an even more dangerous aspect of racism that is easy to ignore if you don’t know how to see it. It’s a kind of racism that remains hidden because it is so deeply embedded into the system and into American ideology.

There is a distinction to be made between prejudice and racism. The semantics are important because word meanings translate into ways of thinking and perceiving. I subscribe to David Wellman’s definition of racism as a “system of advantage based on race.” This definition implies that it is not necessary to “embrace overtly prejudicial thinking” in order to be part of the racist system. The system incorporates “cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as beliefs and actions of individuals” that place people of color at a disadvantage, writes Beverly Tatum in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

This system has produced and maintained “White Privilege.” As white men and women we benefit from a racist system. Without doubt, we do not benefit equally—there are too many other “isms” at play: sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Nonetheless, we are beneficiaries whether we know it or not.

What is most striking about systemic racism is that the consequences are particularly dire. Poverty rates for people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people, are more than twice that of white people in America. “In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.

Welfare programs, affirmative action policies and the War on Drugs have done little—if anything at all—to get at the root of the issue. They instead slap a Band-Aid onto the problem, hoping that covering it up will solve it. In reality, the primary source of the poverty trap lies within public schools and the public school system, which fail to provide children of color and children from low-income families the skills and attention they need to succeed.

Instead, schools promote the maintenance of the status quo, which belies the tenets of the American Dream touted by citizens and immigrants alike. The American Dream is about social mobility, and it relies on the premise that we live in a meritocracy. For many this might be at least partially true. For instance, for me, it has been. My mother raised me as a struggling single parent for much of my life, but I’ve been able to work hard, get good scholarships, go to college and graduate with three majors and with highest honors. Even so, my hard work has only done part of it for me. I have also enjoyed white, heterosexual privilege.

But the reality for too many other people is that hard work and good decisions are often not enough to realize that great American Dream. The idea that social mobility is a possibility for all is nice. However, it is only an idea right now.

Realizing this is the first step to making it a reality. But we have a long, long way to go.