Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Race/ism & Disparities

Just a few days apart, two thought-provoking articles show up in In the first article, Simone Lightfoot--relatively new AAPS school board member--says that she is concerned about student achievement numbers.
“These (numbers) for African-American and Hispanic children are abysmal,” she said. “The seeming sentiment of ‘Hold on, we’ll get there,’ isn’t working for me.”
I appreciate Simone Lightfoot's honesty. As I noted several weeks ago in a series of posts (start here), segregation--and its cousin, the so-called achievement gap--have been with us for over thirty years. And note, that by "us," I don't just mean Ann Arbor schools, although we're obviously talking about Ann Arbor. This is true throughout the U.S.

This gap is not only true in education outcomes. It is true in health outcomes and it's true in housing outcomes. Have you ever looked at the difference in how many African-Americans (and Hispanics) are likely to get diabetes, compared to whites? What about heart disease? Age until death? How about rates of foreclosure? The numbers are not pretty.

Sure, we can research, and act, and research, and act, but a lot of things that we thought would work to improve outcomes have not actually improved outcomes. (A few have.) Is that simply how it is? Does race stand in for something else? Is it racism?

Just over a year ago, the Ann Arbor News reported this:
The Ann Arbor school district has started correcting problems that were causing a disproportionate number of black students [47%] to be labeled as cognitively impaired, the district's special education director told the school board Wednesday night.
47%!? How do those numbers look today, a year and a half later?

Interestingly (but I'm not happy about this), in the Ann Arbor school district, we have been sued for reverse discrimination. In the late 1990s, there was a Saturday Academy for African American Youth--but the focus on African-American Youth was considered a problem by some. (I couldn't find a link to any of the news stories, or the summary, of the case. Point one my way if you know it, or write more in the comments.) It's my understanding, though, that part of the settlement was that the Saturday Academy could not be largely focused on African Americans.

And this week the same issue raises its head, when Mike Madison, a principal and an African-American man, offers a field trip to a select group of kids: African-American kids. Talk about controversy! The article doesn't explain why they could only invite a certain number of kids, and I'm troubled by the allegation that some African-American girls were disinvited. 
Do I think that this is the solution to the achievement gap? No.
But do I think that this is the worst idea ever and Mike Madison is a total idiot? No, that is not it either.

My personal experience of Mike Madison is that he is a creative thinker. And quite honestly, dealing with the achievement gap requires thinking outside the box, and probably providing multiple solutions. If the achievement gap were easy to deal with, it would have been dealt with already! And when we think outside the box, we often find that our attempts are not successful. 

So--Simone Lightfoot--thank you for keeping your eye on our failures as well as our successes.
And--Mike Madison--thank you for trying out a solution. Try a different one next time.
As Thomas Alva Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
We need to keep working on this.

Image is from here.


  1. I think the trip the lunch bunch idea was a poorly done idea with bad execution. Mike Madison should be fired. He would be fired in any other self respecting organization.
    That is not going to correct the achievement gap.
    Changing the way adults look at the problem will change that.
    And that goes to training the TC's, the social workers, the teachers how to have expectations, different expectations, how to make those things happen in their minds before the kids will show.
    I watched a secretary in a middle school that shall remain nameless handle a black boy who was dawdling in the hallway. He was down in the office, complaining about his foot hurting and while she went to get him something, he asked to go get water, and irritated, she let him. He walks a ways down the hall, to talk to some friends,( and what were they doing in the hallway between during class?) and she comes out with her ice back and is just furious with him. She was quite irritated and ordered him back, gave him the whatfor about walking off when supposedly his toe hurt, and sent him off, and rolled her eyes.
    What was so striking was her attitude towards him, so unpleasant, when clearly the kid was trying to just trying and succeeding in getting out of school, out of class. She demeaned him in the process...
    Yup, I can't imagine why there is an achievement gap....

  2. Anon4, I absolutely do not agree with you about Mike Madison deserving to be fired, or even punished. If we set it up so that every time someone makes a mistake they get fired or severely punished, then we set up an environment where nobody is willing to take risks.

    Also--whatever our own experiences watching individuals (and we all have them), we tend to remember them in a race-laden context. If that same experience had happened, but everyone was white, then you would not impute the reasons for either the administrative staff or the student's reactions as related to their race. I find it notable that you tell me the race of the student, and not the race of the administrative staff. Should I then assume that the administrative staff person is white? It tends to be that we (and I include myself as a white person) think about race as invisible, unless the person is not the same race as us. Yet I have seen the same type of (water cooler) event happen when both student and administrative staff are white. Is the incident race-based? Or do we impute race as the cause?
    Bottom line: this is a complicated issue, without a one-size fits all solution.

  3. I think there is a share of fault with the school district, there definitely are some very elitist programs and I can imagine it is hard for poor kids to sit alongside kids with so much educational advantage. But, there also need to be some cultural changes from within the communities. I have kids at Pioneer and the teachers grade on a point system. It would be extremely difficult to fail if a sutdent did their homework. Tests are only part of the grade. Daily homework and other assignments play a huge role. My daughter has serious reading problems and often gets low test scores. But, she gets excellent grades and the secret ingredient is assignments completed and turned in on time. Principal White validated this with his system of having students who did not turn in their homework sent to his office to complete it under his watch. There is all kinds of free homework and studying help available at several locations in Ann Arbor if someone doesn't have help at home.

  4. If every time someone made a mistake, someone felt their job was fired, that would be wrong. However there are certain lines if crossed, are over the line, and yes, you should be dismissed.
    Here's a guy who was yelling at a little girl,after he's the one who did the wrong thing. There's a level of decorum if you are going to be the principal, and not every one is cut out for that. I didn't have principals who acted like that, ever. My parents also backed up the teachers and their authority, but we did not have scenes like that in our childhood.
    Doubtful that's the only time he's yelled at little kids, doubtful he has overreached and gave one group something at the expense of the others.
    He also told little black girls to leave when there wasn't room to go. How can he possibly be given a job where he is the person in charge? It's just wrong that he thinks it acceptable his thinking is flawed, his actions illegal and unprofessional.
    The staff was white in my little story, but that still isn't important, because it was how the staff member was trying to elicit the behavior desired, and it was a very counterproductive method, a method that would be sure to engender more difficult behavior, even if the kid had gone back to class immediately. That hurt and anger he undoubtedly felt after that would stay with that child and he still didn't want to go to class.
    I don't believe the staff member is racist,that's a person who just doesn't have the comprehension or the tools to manage a situation better than that.
    I'll go one step further, maybe that was a difficult, defiant kid and that staff member was at their wit's end, or it was just a one time thing.
    It doesn't matter. That is irrelevant to the event
    Yelling, using anger, opprobrium as the tool of control doesn't solve difficult behavior. To change behavior you have to go to positive behavior support, not social disapproval or anger