River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 16 2012

Hips Don’t Lie, and Fad-Based Myths Don’t Die

Due in part to the maddening flurry of education reform related articles in the past two month, I had essentially sworn off blogging. While in the groove of seeing real change happening on the ground every day in my work with City Year, I felt increasingly removed from the debate between older folk being played out across social media and in the news. That said, I recently listened to a podcast by @DropOutNation, a blog I generally agree with. However, the most recently post presented (recycled?) the following argument:

“…takes a look at the poverty mythmaking of education traditionalists, and explains how their excuses for educational failure are similar to those made by those opposed the civil rights movement of the last century. Using the stereotypes of the conditions of poor families to oppose systemic reform is unacceptable and inexcusable.”

Essentially, he claims that anti-education reformers (such as the later named @DianeRavitch and @AnthonyCody) conspire to preserve the status quo by stereotyping poor, minority children as beyond help due to their growing up in an entrenched culture of poverty. It’s as if folks are walking around holding up signs that say: “Poor, black kids can’t learn!” This may have been the case with the KKK and the various southern politicians he names, but that’s a bit much to pin on a bunch of scholars. Granted, both “sides” are guilty of gross hyperbole in characterizing their “opposition.”

I’m not opposed to the perspective of @DropoutNation, but I vehemently disagree with the continued use of straw man arguments such as the one advanced when he claims that poverty myths hold back education reform. Poverty (enslavement) held back education reform for years and NOW you want to cry foul!? C’mon now, folks! I do believe we’ve all moved past this inflection point in the education reform debate to acknowledge that while poverty plays an outsized role on student achievement, we can *no longer* claim that “poor kids CAN’T learn.” If anything, TFA’s biggest contribution to society is allowing this fact to be validated.

I use the term “validated” for a significant reason. Since before the likes of Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington, it’s been known that black americans are fully capable of high-level academic achievement. However, it sadly took the advocacy of predominantly white organizations such as Teach For America to vouch for modern-day underserved communities nationwide. Yes, that sounds awful, but the facts don’t lie; on the flip-side, fad-based myths do. Just as Obama required the approval of gatekeepers such as Bill Clinton and Warren Buffet to be successfully (re)elected, black children across the country have required the validation of their transient TFA teachers to tell the stories of their success against the odds. Mainstream America living comfortably in the suburbs or wealthier Americans living behind bars…in gated communities have traditionally only believed that poor, black children are capable of great academic deeds when “one of their own” can effectively convey this to them. Why? Given our still racially segregated education system, America’s higher classes would never be exposed to it otherwise. You can say what you want about the elitism of institutions such as Harvard and TFA, but THIS is the underlying benefit TFA provides: it humanizes the plight of America’s struggling underclass; yes, it allows a bit of sunshine to spotlight the daily tragedies our system subjects underprivileged communities to even in 2012!

I don’t use this “sunshine” metaphor lightly. These communities have so many unique strengths but a discussion of these assets is material for another time. The point is that children growing up in poverty are like seedlings growing up in rotten soil in the context of education as defined by the college admissions process and mainstream ideas of achievement [in other words, if the unique culture of a given community doesn't translate into higher test scores, then it doesn't matter]. Let’s do a little thought experiment… [NOTE: Seed analogy to be explored in a future post. It's taken on a mind of its own. #LittleShopOfHorrors]

Shifting gears a bit, I was a huge fan of Shakira starting in late 2001. It helped that she presented herself as a hot blonde, but I quickly realized she had many more talents running deeper than the hyped image of a sex kitten. However, I was pretty irritated when she released “Hips Don’t Lie” five years later, which cause her popularity in the United States to explode! All of a sudden, everyone wanted a piece of Shakira (or at least a certain part of her). I was irate because overnight fans tried to claim rank and become authorities on her career. Now, at that time, I was still learning but I’d be damned if a bunch of single-minded groupies were going to reduce Shakira down to one “asset.” Honestly, I liked her more when she largely flew under the radar of public opinion. Suddenly, pundits across the country felt entitled to give their opinion on her music, on her style, on her voice, on her dancing, on her love life. Deep down, I just wanted everyone to #STFU.

The same exact phenomenon happened with Harry Potter. I had been made fun of for reading the first three or four books, but lo and behold when that first movie came out, all of sudden Harry Potter became mainstream and “cool.” Now, all these “fans” who had never so much as held a book longer than 100 pages in their hands became spokespeople for the “Harry Potter movement.” Once more, I wanted to say #STFU, but instead ended up boycotting the series until I realized that I shouldn’t give up something I loved because of other people’s blind ignorance and #groupthink.

Nowadays, I see the same thing with Education Reform. We’ve developed a cottage industry of consultants and experts who have never been educators, who have never worked in low-income communities for more than a hot minute, and who have never experienced the searing racial prejudice like that poor minority children are exposed to daily….

What’s worse is when those who do have some semblance of sense are co-opted by those who don’t and used to advance a certain type of agenda. YES, POOR KIDS CAN LEARN (given the right conditions). Thank you KIPP, etc. Fact established, can we all move on? I’d argue that poverty myths don’t delay education reform so much as education myths delay stronger social policy. Education is part of the solution to a fractured society, but not the answer in and of itself. We can’t allow a few seeds who emerge from poor soil to enable us to complacently claim that the soil is perfectly fine as is.

And yes, I just incorporated Shakira, Harry Potter, and education reform into the same post.

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