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Forget about “fixing” black kids. What if we fixed white liberals instead?

fix ourselves

Here’s a modest education proposal for my fellow white people, especially my fellow lefties in Minneapolis: What if we stopped talking about how to fix African-American and Latino kids and worked on fixing white progressives instead?

I know. It sounds crazy.  But stay with me, beige people.

We’ve spent years—nay, decades—bemoaning our achievement gap in which white kids in Minneapolis are mostly doing fine; while less than 30 percent of black and Latino kids are working at grade level; less than 48 percent graduate on time etc.

Children of color now make up 67 percent of our enrollment in Minneapolis. (Vocab reminder to the Greatest Generation: this why we can’t call them “minorities” any more.) So you’d think the mass failure of the majority of the city’s school children would be a moral emergency. As in something that demanded bold action.

After all, if white kids were failing at these rates, we’d have already re-designed the schools to work better for them. We’d have changed the teachers, administrators, length of the school day or year or curriculum and anything else. Because if white kids were failing en masse, we’d demand a big fix of the education system.

But when non-white kids are failing, we tend to instead discuss how to fix brown children and their allegedly…ahem… chaotic families, which is white  code for screwed-up.. This is an attractive discussion for us because:

a) We get to feel compassionate and superior at the same time, which is always a rush;

b) Poverty and chaotic families can indeed hurt academic achievement. (Note to Republicans: so you’d have more credibility on education reform if you stopped trying to shred every social safety net.)

c) It plays into one of the oldest and most unexamined American beliefs  namely that When Bad Things Happens To People of Color, It’s Mostly Their Own  Fault, (IMTOF) which runs from our early origins up to the present. Hence, Africans were mentally inferior and thus fit for slavery. Michael Brown shouldn’t have been walking in the middle of the street. And brown kids fail because their chaotic, screwed-up parents don’t value education enough.

Unfortunately, when white people blame the achievement gap almost entirely on poverty and dysfunctional families, the most common response is not bold action, but resignation. Which is understandable. Most of us don’t believe poverty will end our lifetime. And we don’t know how to fix our own dysfunctional families, much less anyone else’s.

So with all of these assumptions, it’s easy to quietly conclude (consciously or not) that the academic failure of black and Latino kids is tragically……. normal.  Brown kids flunk out. They’ve been doing it forever.  It seems to naturally happen, sort of like the law of gravity.  And until the coming of Scandanavian-style socialism (which I’m all for), we can’t do much about it.

This is a classic white liberal approach to the achievement gap, which conveniently lets our public institutions, our political leaders and our own culpability as voters, off the hook.

Let’s ponder this politically for a minute. In Minneapolis, we have a publicly funded school district with a $543 million annual operating budget that delivers starkly different outcomes based on race. As a life-long DFLer, I’d expect my political tribe to be all over this issue. After all, we’re the ones who proudly march for voting rights; gay marriage and go to all those Martin Luther King Day breakfasts.  Yet our DFL leaders  continually defend, protect and enable a status quo whose results resemble those of the Jim Crow era.

Why do they do this?

Sure, the teachers’ unions play a big role. They are the biggest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. They can act very much like the National Rifle Association when it comes to blocking even the most common sense reforms. But I think the real problem goes far deeper than this.

“America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it,” wrote Atlantic Monthy editor  TaNehesi Coates, in his recent award-winning article on reparations. “Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.”

Let that first sentence sink in. Coates is not talking about individual, conscious racism. He’s talking about 400 years of discrimination baked so deeply into our collective DNA and public institutions we don’t even see it, which is precisely how white privilege works. If Coates is right—and I think any serious reading of history backs him up—this preferential treatment also applies our public schools and their unions.

In Minnesota, our schools were created by white middle-class people, for white middle-class people and employ mostly white middle-class people. (Ninety-six percent of our state’s teachers are white, even as children of color now make up 28 percent of the enrollment. In Minneapolis, about 85 percent of our classroom teachers are white, even though 67 percent of their students are not.)

In addition, current school rules, policies and contracts are decided by…Lord, this is getting repetitious…. mostly middle-class white people. Poor parents of color do not sit in our legislature, school boards or union negotiating committees. In Minneapolis, liberal white DFLers occupy almost all those seats

Unsurprisingly, white middle-class children and their families tend to thrive in a system designed around their needs.  In Minneapolis, white middle-class kids tend to have the highest-paid teachers and the best access to advanced courses, performing arts and extra-curricular activities. They are also far less likely than kids of color to be suspended, expelled or identified as emotionally disturbed or mentally disabled.

I am not arguing that public schools in Minneapolis were deliberately, consciously set up for the preferential treatment of middle-class white people.  But pragmatically speaking, that’s how the system works.

This was easier to ignore or justify back in the day when the vast majority of students were white and doing okay. But it’s harder to morally justify when the majority of students are now low-income kids of color and systematically failing. I mean, the whole system starts getting this antebellum vibe.

Anyhow, add it all up and it’s a little weird that we progressives spend so much time talking about fixing brown people as opposed to the public institutions we’ve created for them and still control.

In Minneapolis, we actually, honestly could change our schools to work better for our kids of color. But this would involve asking mostly white middle-class administrators, teachers and employees to change their work lives—-i.e. their schedules, assignments, job locations and even pay—around the needs, comfort and convenience of low-income people of color and their children.

And OMG, This. Just. Isn’t. Done. It would be a complete reversal of how our schools currently work. And it’s also precisely where most of our DFL legislators, labor allies and a whole lot of white progressives, suddenly jump off the social justice and racial equity bus. I mean, we’re willing to sing “We Shall Overcome”, denounce racism and march against poverty. But to go against the preferential treatment of white people especially when that means people like us or our friends or allies!?!?

Beige progressives, we’ve got some fixing to do.

——–Lynnell Mickelsen

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15 thoughts on “Forget about “fixing” black kids. What if we fixed white liberals instead?

    Karen says: February 9, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Lynnell! As always, you do a great job of keeping people focused on the big picture and what the real issues are, and I for one appreciate that. The thing that I’m missing is an understanding of the next steps: How do we address these issues/problems? You allude to administrators, teachers, and employees being willing to change their work lives around the needs, comfort and convenience of low-income people of color, but what does that mean exactly? I feel like we’re beating our chests shouting out what ails the Mpls Public school system, but I don’t see that there is a recommended course of action to cure these ills.

      Beverly says: February 9, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks, Lynnell for your stirring the pot writing! I’m counting on you to “fix” those white liberals while I pray for God to fix the white conservatives. I have no love affair either party.
      By the way, Doug sent me your post!

      Lynnell Mickelsen says: February 9, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      In reply to Karen.
      Thank for this comment, Karen. Well, it’s complex and there are a lot of solutions, but for starters, off the top of my head, here’s a few in no particular order:

      1) pay excellent teachers significantly more to teach at high-poverty schools;

      2) hire more teachers of color; In order to do this we should also

      3) open the pipeline for teachers so we can hire experienced, licensed teachers from California or Alabama or wherever without insisting that these veteran out-of-state teachers repeat student teaching or have to pay thousands of dollars for additional credits from Minnesota schools of education;

      4) extend the school day and year at schools where the majority of students are far behind their peers;

      5) instead of a 10-12 week vacation in the summer (when low-income kids fall even further behind) have four-five weeks of vacation time in the summer, with another break in the winter ,etc. Like they do in Europe and elsewhere.

      6) make principals at-will employees so that we can more easily get rid of ineffective ones and hire better ones;

      7) Change state law so that in the case of lay-offs, we aren’t limited to only laying off by seniority, but can hold on to our most effective teachers;

      8) use more great computer programs and games to teach key math or language skills;

      I could go on and on. If we were designing a school system with the kids’ academic achievement as our first priority, it would look very different from our current one. All of these suggestions have been proposed. All but #8 are fiercely opposed by the teachers’ unions and their allies in the legislature.

      As much as I dislike Republicans for their stupid economic and social policies, when it comes to education, my beloved Democrats are often on the wrong side and taking reactive positions to defend a broken status quo that is based on the preferential treatment of white people. For those of us who say we care about social justice, this should be a problem.

    Kevin says: February 9, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I was going to leave a comment, but Karen wrote exactly what I was thinking. It’s easier to define the problem than to specify the solutions. I’m at a loss about what should be done.

    Melissa says: February 9, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Honestly, this article is sad. You’re calling out white people as a collective establishment, which we are not. And you’re making us out to be either evil, or clueless. Then you call on the white folks to fix all of these problems in the school system, by changing our schedules and job locations?? Sounds to me like you have a case of “white guilt” and that’s not going to help anything. Real solutions don’t come from calling out people by their race. Whether you’re talking about white or black people, it’s still racist.

      Lynnell Mickelsen says: February 9, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      I don’t think most of us pinkish types are evil. I do think we’re often clueless. I don’t have white guilt, which I think is useless. I just want the system to work better for the kids of color, who are the new majority of our students and will be our future workforce.

      White people have created and still control most parts of our education system. Since we’re the people with the power, I think we should spend more of our time trying to make the system work better for kids of color, as oppose to trying to “fix” kids of color.

      Public schools should exist first and foremost to educate children. If employees need to change their schedules or work locations to better accomplish this, I’m all for it. If they don’t want to do that, no worries, but they should seek to work elsewhere.

      If this situation was reversed, white people would have already gone ballistic and demanded change.

        curious idle says: June 22, 2015 at 5:05 am

        Actually, I think the issue is parent involvement. Where parent involvement is strong, schools are strong and more kids are on point. Your assumption that it’s the employees is ignorant in the extreme. I’ve worked in all kinds of schools, including “chaotic” ones and very well organized ones. Chaotic ones had poor parent attendance at meetings, parents with personality disorders that impacted their lives and their ability to be available for their children and children who were not school ready. Your assumption that these are not major factors in poor performers and that it’s all about those union teachers who need to own up to their whiteness is idiotic. Oh and just for a reality check, parents with personality issues and substance abuse don’t only occur in black homes or among the poor. Plenty of rich white children getting no support at home and continuing the cycle.

        If you want to see change, you do need to start at home. Political correctness never helped a kid cope with an alcoholic or physically abusive parent. It never helped them care about school when their families don’t. It only massages the egos of people who think they are allies of the poor when really they are enablers and deniers.

    Paul says: February 9, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    You aren’t really asking white liberals, whom you claim to be, to change. You are asking education professionals to work for less, without due process, with lesser training required so they can be paid less, and you are recommending they not be used as expert resources about education.

      Lynnell Mickelsen says: February 12, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Hi Paul—and in the interest of full transparency–am I talking to Paul Winkelaar, who is a lobbyist for Education Minnesota? If so, nice to see you last night at the Urban Growler Brewery at the Educators for Excellence event. But I think it’s better for the discussion if we’re fully identified.

      If you’re not Paul Winkelaar, hi, nice to meet you but let’s use first and last names please.(See About this Blog rules) If you don’t want to be fully identified, send me an email. Or just lurk!

      1) RE: who I “claim to be” I am indeed white and am a life-long active progressive/liberal. And I’m hardly the only one who supports this stuff.

      According to the polls, 91 percent of Minnesota voters want our schools to be able can keep great teachers during lay-offs. Which would mean changing the state law—which currently says public district schools must use strict seniority during layoffs, without regard to performance. If supporting rigid seniority lay-off rules is the litmus test for being liberal, that means only 9 percent of the voters could be called liberals. I mean, Yikes! That would be very bad for those of us on the left.

      2) I haven’t proposed the other things you cite–less pay, no due process, etc, so it’s interesting that this is what you assume.

      3) In general, I don’t find the all-or-nothing assumptions helpful, i.e. either you support every clause of the contract or you are trying to destroy unions, etc. I grew up Baptist and in my experience, the either/or, all or nothing, saved or damned, heaven or hell scenario was usually trotted out to shut-down discussions and keep people in a tight ideological or theological box. Which I don’t find particularly liberal!

    Bill Soderholm says: March 1, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Am I missing something or did my earlier post get removed?

    Bill Soderholm says: March 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

    My experience both as a parent and teacher has been that the most experienced teachers ARE the most effective.
    Has there ever been a case where a young, effective teacher was cut due to seniority yes, of course.
    The belief that this is a common occurrence is simply myth.
    Most often, teachers self-select out early on. Many of us were cut early in our careers.
    Let’s suppose you need heart surgery…. do you want the surgeon who has experience treating many or the new, energetic “go getter”?
    The go getter could be the best ever but odd are they are not, not without experience.
    Experience teaches many, many things.
    Lastly, measurement of teacher effectiveness is a nebulous thing at best.
    With my own children, watching them have different teachers through the years I realized even more so how teacher effectiveness is very difficult to measure.
    My children had teachers whom I was suspect of and then it turned out they were quite wonderful, successful educators.

    Bill says: March 1, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    “White people have created and still control most parts of our education system. Since we’re the people with the power, I think we should fix what’s not working.”

    Lynnell, Would you please elaborate on this…
    What would be three specific things you can point out that are not “Black” in the academic experience?

    Bill says: March 1, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    To make it clearer, I teach Science.
    How is learning about photosynthesis racially eclusive?
    or Cell Functions?
    or Cell Theory?
    or Cell transport?

    Lincoln Calcavecchi says: April 9, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Hi Lynnell,
    I’m coming to your blog on this subject a bit late, but I find it interesting. I don’t find it interesting because I’m white and teach children, but because I’m white and I teach a somewhat diverse setting of adults. I teach a specialized segment of the adult population who is often former military and also works for the government. I’m in corporate training, essentially. Some of my adult learners are masters degreed, others are not. I still find that with such soft skills as writing, public speaking, and critical thinking, they are still lacking, regardless of race, age, or gender. What I’m curious about, given your current focus, is how you see the children you describe growing up to be the adults that someone in my position would have to provide additional job training to in the future. Will the children you describe be more educated and capable if the white liberal education establishment changes its mindset?


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