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Cops, teachers and reform: same issues, different allies.

Ferguson plastic tags

Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty, Guardian

Awhile back, I heard a BBC report on “Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?”  and I was struck by the similar issues when we’re talking about cops, teachers and reform.

In both cases, we’re dealing with public employees who:

I mean, heck, given all this, what could possibly go wrong when people of color deal with their police or schools?

Anyhow, here are the BBC’s four main points on police violence followed by my comparison to what’s happening in education.

1) Ferguson and Baltimore are not isolated incidences. 

On MappingPoliceViolence.org there’s a map with a red, glowing dot for each of the 304 fatal police shootings of black people in 2014. If you click on the link, it looks like much of the country is on fire. If you mapped out districts where children of color were failing en masse, you’d see the same thing.

2) Many police have an implicit bias against blacks, although in fairness, it’s not just cops, it’s our whole culture. Computer-simulated studies show people are far quicker to shoot an unarmed black men than unarmed white man. And study after study shows that schools are far more likely to suspend black boys than white boys as well as refer them to special education .

3) Police have created a “warrior” police culture which is willing to maim or kill innocent civilians rather than risk injury to a single officer.

This is both fascinating and harrowing.  Seth Stoughton, a former cop-turned-University of South Carolina law professor, explained to the BBC how police culture has become even more extreme than the military when it comes to tolerating civilian casualties.

“”When the military is designing a mission, they have in mind the fact that they’re going to lose soldiers, “ Stoughton says. “The police profession has strongly repudiated that notion. No officer fatalities are acceptable.”

Instead, Stoughton says, police now see a high civilian death as an acceptable price to pay for police safety although I’d add the caveat….as long as those civilians are people of color. (Witness the different way police responded to the Baltimore protests vs. the white biker shoot-out in Waco.)

On the education front, we see a similar dynamic except since teaching is overwhelmingly female, the culture is more Besieged Martry  than “warrior. ” But if you add up implicit bias + Besieged Martyr culture  + powerful unions who make it nearly impossible to dismiss anyone for poor performance, you get school districts where high black failure rates are an acceptable price to pay to insure sure no teachers lose their jobs.

As with police shootings, the demise of children of color in the classroom has been going on for so long that most white people have basically normalized it. Yet if police were  killing unarmed white suburban kids at the rate they kill urban black ones, we’d have demanded a wholesale re-working of policing in this country. Just as if white boys were failing at the same rate as black boys, we’d have already remade our schools to work better for them.

So we’re looking at similar issues although they tend to attract very different political allies. Politicans are mostly loathe to criticize either group. Republicans/conservatives will defend the police over teachers.  Democrats/liberals  are more prone to defend teachers over the police.

4) “We have to fix the wider social problems first.”  The BBC’s last point came from Charles Ramsey, who heads both the Philadelphia Police Department and Obama’s new Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and said. “”We live in a society where everybody wants to point fingers, but we have a lot of deeply-rooted societal problems: poverty, education, poor housing stock. We’ve got to deal with the issue of extreme poverty.”

Yep. We hear the same thing about the equity gap in education.  As a progressive ed reformer, I agree with Charles Ramsey: I think poverty and poor housing and the rest are all huge issues and we need to make serious public investments in these areas. However, I do take issue with that little word: “first”.

Because we need to fix poverty AND we need to change our police and education systems.  We don’t have to choose. We don’t have to fix them in a chronological order. If Black Lives Matter, they matter in both the street and the classroom. So it would be nice if both Republicans and Democrats—and their various allies– would stop treating them as entirely separate issues.  As a Democrat, I’m especially interested in Democrats getting this right.

—–Lynnell Mickelsen, May 29, 2015

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9 thoughts on “Cops, teachers and reform: same issues, different allies.

    J Vasquez says: May 29, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    As a teacher who lives and works in my community, who is active in my union and has participated in the black lives matter protests against police brutality for months I find this post offensive. Taking away my right ability to advocate for my students and my professions isn’t on the same playing field as making sure our criminal justice prosecutes a police office who kills an unarmed child, man or woman.

    There’s nothing remotely progressive about what you’ve written. It’s just a crude way of justifying what you believe about unions and education by appropriating the black lives matter so you can justify your work.

      Lynnell Mickelsen says: May 30, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Sorry but there is nothing remotely progressive about staffing rules that a) value a teacher’s “right” to a job over the rights of 25 kids to a decent education; b) prevent schools from hiring the best possible teachers and more teachers of color;c) don’t allow schools to extends the school day or year (or just break up the long summer vacation so kids don’t lose so much progress over a 12-week break); d) don’t allow schools to pay teachers more to teach in high-poverty schools and on and on.

      Nor is there anything particularly progressive about trying to dump the evidence of academic gaps by trying to end standardized testing. Polling shows that all the policies I just listed have the support of the majority of voters across party lines.

      Also, take a look at this New York Times op-ed on police union reform and ask how much applies to the teachers’ unions. I’d say that a lot applies.

      I support public schools, public school teachers and unions, but I don’t support bad policies that don’t serve kids or the public.

      Dmitri says: May 31, 2015 at 10:37 am

      It’s understandable that you would take offense, but you may want to take a breath and take a step back. Other than your innate sense of outrage, what did Lynell write that was wrong? Are police inherently bad people? Do people go into the police force to do ill? Aren’t most cops well-intended, hardworking public servants who find the system crushing?

    Lynnell Mickelsen says: May 31, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    I agree, Dmitri. I think the majority of police and teachers are well-intended, hardworking public servants.

    But both groups have people who aren’t suited for the job. In New York and elsewhere, the data shows that a small minority of officers are responsible for the majority of abuse complaints. And yet these officers stay on the job year after year.

    In a recent Minnesota poll, teachers reported that 17 percent of their colleagues were ineffective. In Minneapolis, the dismissal rates for low teaching performance among tenured teachers is less than one percent.

    Both groups do not want data collected that could highlight bad performance.

    Both groups also tend to feel they should be above reproach or public criticism. Witness the NYPD turning their backs to Mayor Bill DeBlasio during a police funeral because after Eric Garner’s death the mayor had earlier dared to say “the way we go about policing has to change.” De Blasio was castigated for being “anti-police.”

    Michael says: June 1, 2015 at 7:32 am

    What this discussion misses is that both teachers and cops are in the business of maintaining social class boundaries. Implicitly what they DO is the way the system is suppose to work. If you look at the policies that don’t normally make any sense, like shooting someone in the back, HS suspension as discipline, or social promotion they make more sense. The fact that these policies are “functional” for those in control is what makes them so resistant to reform.

    Lincoln says: June 3, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    I appreciate that you have the strength to post this blog and that you make this statement that unions will not get rid of their bad apples. Then again, we have age-old institutions that are loathe to admit defeat in instance after instance, and so shift to other locations bad clergy, bad teachers, bad constables, bad bureaucrats, bad military commanders, etc. It is nothing new. For some reason, we do not want to deal with our bad performers. When in the Army, years back, there was a Soldier who was having great difficulties in the job and location that job was to be performed. The Soldier was “farmed out” to me as a unit NCO leader. I sought that individual’s strengths and set the Soldier to work. I saw that Soldier over 10 years later to discover much had been accomplished. This may not have happened had I not taken the time to “see” the Soldier and “hear” the Soldier and devise a solution through which that Soldier could continue to serve our Nation. We don’t necessarily need to get rid of bad teachers, but we do need to take them out of the classroom, discover why they wanted to be a teacher in the first place and whether that desire is still resident, and then find something else for them to do. However, when we do need to toss out the trash, we need to heave it with a mighty Ho! We are, unfortunately, in a commodity market mindset, where teachers are commodities, students are commodities, and what is taught is a commodity. What do we do with a commodity that doesn’t serve a purpose? Either we throw it out or we shove it to the back of the storage shed. Seldom do we seek to repurpose what we have, such as repurposing our teachers or our police officers.


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